One of the best parts of my job at Local 4 is the opportunity to meet and interview the various CEOs and other auto executives in Motown.
In 18 years I can say I’ve been given enough access to executive talent to learn a great deal about the challenges they face and what each person brings to the very difficult jobs they undertake.
From 2011: Barra Is First Woman To Head GM Products
In early 2011 General Motors offered me an opportunity to interview Mary Barra. It was the first interview with the new product design chief. Mary is an engineer, and so while she is exceptionally intelligent and affable she brought the traditional engineer’s logical if not so much personable approach to her first television appearance. She had obviously been coached and stuck to, make that clung to, her talking points.
Normally I use my first question to allow the executive to get their talking points out, allow them to feel comfortable, find a rhythm if there is any tension [this happens sometimes with newbies] and then start probing for the more newsworthy headlines that might be gleaned from an encounter such as this. Mary did not show any nervousness that I could detect but I did get the impression she’d rather be getting a root canal than speak with me. I’ve never worried about such things as it is both our jobs to be there.
At that time, Barra was taking over as the Product Development Chief from auto industry legend Bob Lutz. Mary was actually a bit of a Lutz protégé and he liked her a lot and she liked him. From my perspective at that time the old saw “never replace a legend” came to mind as Barra’s very direct and rather colorless answers did not square with the larger-than-life personality Lutz brought to the same process. Frankly, Lutz could always be counted on for not just a good sound bite but a great one and at every sitting. This did not happen with Mary. I came away from the interview concerned General Motors had put its future product development in the hands of someone who while technically competent may not have been the right fit.
That thought in my mind was also coupled with the fact that the company had just emerged from bankruptcy. Almost every executive I spoke with leading up to that historic and sad event had told me everything was going to be OK and that the company would be able to weather pretty much any storm. At that time, I was feeling particularly unimpressed with executives who spouted talking points and hearts and flowers as Mary did that day. My story expressed that same old GM concern, the juxtaposition of an industry legend and this woman who was taking over the heart of the company after running the human resources department after running the Hamtramck Assembly plant.
This did not inspire the feeling GM’s future product would look flashy or even fresh. That did not get past GM's P.R. department. One of the longtime contacts I have had inside the Ren Cen called me the next day and asked me if someone had done something untoward to my cornflakes the previous morning. The story was not especially welcome.
Fast forward to late September 2013 when GM CEO Dan Akerson said at a women in business conference that it would not be long before a “car-gal” would take over the Ren Cen board room. I immediately thought of Mary Barra and made certain that sound bite made it on the on the air that day.
In the time since I had done that one-on-one interview with Barra she had perhaps outdone Bob Lutz in one important area; show the ability to lead large parts of the company to success with an ability to build consensus. Lutz was a great “car-guy”, knew design, understood what car buyers wanted for the most part [he had great home runs and equally great duds] but always was difficult to work with. He had been in the executive suites at BMW, Ford, Chrysler and General Motors and never made it to the big chair. Largely the industry always said he knew what he was doing in the design suite but wasn’t always the best guy to lead the entire company.
Barra essentially bested the teacher by being able to calm chaotic operations, express a vision of where the company needed to go and get large sectors of employees to understand that vision and get them to act on it. That is genuine leadership, the kind of leadership that good CEO’s bring to the job. That is the kind of leadership Alan Mulally brought to Ford and Sergio Marchionne brought to Chrysler.
GM has a new leader in Mary Barra and while her interview style might need a little polish, it is fairly clear she is cut out of good and vitally important CEO material. By all accounts she is the right woman for the job to make GM a new, fresh, different global car company.