The history of the automotive industry conjures images of Henry Ford, the Model T, and mass production. It is traditional, competitive, assertive.
To many, it may have come as a surprise when Mary Barra was named CEO of General Motors in 2014. Flamboyant and lavish she was not. Instead, she is humble and collaborative, eager to give credit to her team rather than stealing the limelight herself. She has also paid her dues with now some 37 years with the company.
Barra embodies the very essence of a 21st century leader and offers lessons we can all learn from:
1. Quiet leadership is a workable model for a senior executive. Being humble doesn’t necessarily mean lacking in self-confidence. Rather, it is that quiet confidence that helps build trust.
2. She aims to bring order to a chaotic world. When becoming product chief in 2011, the development process was in disarray. She immediately set to work, rationalizing the product line, improving quality and efficiency, and better aligning the product with customer needs.
3. Barra had a passion for cars at a young age. When she entered the industry she sought to expand her “range,” beginning with a foundation in engineering, but then learning quality control, production, human resources, product development, and supply chain management. Throughout all of that, however, she continually focused on being successful in her present job, rather than the next step in her career ladder.
4. She never stopped learning, taking time away from her job to attend the Harvard Business School program.
5. Most importantly, when she led Human Resources for a time she sought to replace the image of HR with a human face, emphasizing personal accountability and responsibility. She came across as genuine, caring, and authentic.