You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who knows General Motors better than Mary Barra.
An engineer by training, Barra has worked at GM her entire career and even got her undergraduate degree from Kettering University, formerly known as General Motors Institute.
She became GM’s first female CEO in 2014 and the first woman to lead any major automaker.
Barra is also one of only two female CEOs in the Fortune 500 to bring on a female CFO. She’s also been calling for the company to hire employees with a diverse set of skills and backgrounds. Recently GM was named No. 1 out of 200 companies worldwide for its efforts to achieve gender equality.
During Barra’s first year as CEO, she led GM through a reckoning of its culture and safety practices after multiple recalls, including one for a faulty ignition switch that resulted in 124 deaths. She fired 15 employees, disciplined five others and created a compensation fund for victims’ families.
Since then, Barra has been pushing GM to innovate. One of her top priorities is the development of self-driving cars, which she says the company will start selling next year. On her watch, GM beat Tesla to market with a moderately priced, long-range electric vehicle. And just last week GM announced it was partnering with Honda to create a new generation of fully autonomous vehicles.
In an email interview with CNN, Barra spoke about her leadership style, who influenced her along the way, the value of time and #MeToo.
What does it take to run a successful business?
It takes a lot! You need the right people, the right culture and the right strategy. To be truly great, your team must have diversity of thought and be willing to collaborate constructively.
Your company culture should empower and inspire people to relentlessly pursue the company’s vision — always with integrity.
A strong strategy is the roadmap to achieve your vision, but you need strategies for this year, as well as the next five, 10, 20 years — and they all may need to work in tandem. Our vision at General Motors is a world with zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion, and everyone on the team knows we are committed to putting the customer at the center of everything we do.
How do you keep innovating and stay on top of trends in such a fast-paced business world?
At General Motors, we live and work by a set of seven behaviors, one of which we call Innovate Now. This means “I see things not how they are but how they should be.” So, we empower our teams to innovate and create, while also understanding macro trends.
We look for ways to use our technology to provide value for our customers to make their lives safer, better and easier and to develop new business ideas like our car-sharing brand Maven.
We also challenge our team to find new solutions through hackathons and crowdsourcing. I believe that being open-minded and having a true thirst for knowledge helps us see around corners and create the future.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be in your job?
My parents taught my brother and me that there is no substitute for hard work. They were right.
In addition, you’re going to need to know our business inside and out, so be passionate and imaginative about how customers can get from Point A to Point B.
And, be sure to listen more than talk. You can learn a lot from your customers, team and other stakeholders.
What do you wish you had learned early in your career?
Two things immediately come to mind:
Time is not your friend. Every industry is being disrupted so the importance of speed cannot be underestimated.
Not making a decision is a decision.
What mentor or teacher has influenced your career most, and how?
I wouldn’t be where I am without my many generous mentors. From my first mid-level manager, to my predecessor to dozens of people in between — they’ve all given me critical feedback in ways that helped develop my leadership style.
Recently, Lean In shared survey results that three times as many male managers are uncomfortable mentoring women in the wake of #MeToo. Early in my career, I can think of a few male mentors who encouraged me to speak up in meetings, not to let men interrupt me and to stop saying sorry about things I shouldn’t be sorry about.
Most importantly, they encouraged me to take leadership roles on working teams. It’s one of the reasons I am committed to #mentorher and encourage my team to do the same.