Inclusive Leadership: The Mary Barra Way

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In 2009, when Barra was appointed Vice President of Global Human Resource (HR), GM was in the process of recovering from bankruptcy. Barra’s management style focused on delegating power to managers so as to make GM a lean organization. She felt GM was caught in a bureaucratic tradition.

At that time, the HR team was required to develop a dress code covering the needs of a variety of workers including engineers and managers as well as salespeople. The extensive dress code prepared by the team included specific instructions like, “You can’t wear T-shirts that have words on them that could be misinterpreted”. Barra changed that long instruction on dress code and made it simply, “Dress appropriately.” ...

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Analysts opined that Barra embodied all the traits of an inclusive leader. She emphasized collaboration. Barra was known for her interpersonal skills and focus on the customer. She relied on team-building and held ‘hall meetings’ to solicit advice on project direction. Describing Barra’s leadership style, John Calabrese, GM’s vice president of global vehicle engineering, who had worked with her in different capacities for 12 years, said, “Mary is trying to bring order to the business. She’s very methodical, very logical, very fair. She challenges the status quo pretty well. She’s provocative. . . . She’s an outstanding listener. And I guess she kind of has a consensus approach, but when it’s not coming together, she gets concise and she’s pretty decisive.”...


In February 2014, GM issued recalls for several of its models suspected of having a faulty ignition switch that automatically turned the engine off and prevented the deploying of air bags while the car was in motion. While on July 29, 2005, a 16-year-old Maryland resident had died due to this defect while driving her 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt, GM took almost a decade to announce its first recall related to the ignition switch default. As of March 2014, more than 2.6 million cars had been recalled. The recalls raised many questions about GM’s handling of the situation, such as how long the company had known about the problem, why the company had not informed federal safety officials, and why GM had not issued safety recalls sooner...


Analysts were of the opinion that Barra’s tenure as CEO was marked by both disappointment and opportunity. The disappointment came from the recall of 39 million vehicles due to faulty ignitions which led to at least 21 deaths just weeks after Barra took over as CEO of GM; the opportunity came in terms of recreating GM with a renewed focus on safety. In 2014, GM sold 9.92 million cars worldwide despite the recalls which also affected the automaker financially as it had to pay out nearly US$2 billion for the recalls and for compensation to the victims in 2014...


Barra’s future challenge would lie in steering GM through a long list of federal investigations and lawsuits from consumers. The company was facing an investigation by the regulators and the US Justice Department over why it had waited till February 2014, about 11 years after first recognizing the ignition-switch problem, to start recalling about 2.6 million cars. The company could face a fine like the US$1.2 billion settlement Toyota Motors had to pay in March 2014 for its history of overdue recalls ...


Exhibit I Head of GM over the Years

Exhibit II GM’s New Corporate Strategy

Exhibit III Market Share of Top Five Automakers in the US

Exhibit IV Financial Performance of GM (2012-2014)