You Call Them GM Lifers Like It’s a Bad Thing

It is true that I expected to see a woman president of the United States before I ever expected to see an automaker name a woman as CEO. That the company making the earthshaking, glass-ceiling-shattering move is General Motors? Nope, I never would have guessed that. This is the definitive answer to the question, Just how far has GM come since the bottom fell out of Detroit in 2008? Well, General Motors has named the first woman CEO of a major car company.

Of course I’m excited about Mary Barra. I’m a woman in a man’s world. (Maybe the most manly of men’s worlds!)

Obviously, I wanted Mark Reuss, GM North America president, to get the job. I’m the editor of an automotive enthusiast magazine, and he is one of the most passionate car guys that I know. Outgoing CEO Dan Akerson forgot to consult me, but there you have it.

Now then. How is this going to work?

Pretty well, I’m thinking. Mary Barra has been quickly gaining gravitas. Quickly, as in over the course of thirty years. She started at eighteen as a student at General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in 1980, the same year I became an automotive journalist. She graduated and went on to become an electrical engineer in the Pontiac Fiero plant in 1985, the same year I left Car and Driver with David E. Davis, Jr., to start Automobile Magazine.

Barra made a steady ascent through some very important positions at GM, among them running the massive Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, which opened the year we started this magazine; serving as executive director of Competitive Operations Engineering; and even heading global HR for a year and a half. Early on, Barra was tapped for a GM fellowship to Stanford Graduate School of Business, from which she got her MBA in 1990.

She ascended to the massively powerful role of running global engineering, design, and purchasing—which is pretty much everything—with the rallying cry, “No more crappy cars.” Mary Barra is no lightweight.

I know her, and I like her. She has personality, wit, charm, and presence. I feel like a lumbering harridan in comparison. I don’t have a sister, but if I did, I would want her to be just like Mary. I would want Mary to be my boss. Her personality is calm in the eye of a storm. She loves General Motors and the people who work there. In fact, she recently blew out the stodgy GM dress code, explaining the move at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit: “So I can trust you with a ten-million-dollar budget and supervising twenty people, but I can’t trust you to dress appropriately?” Respect.

A huge win for GM: Mary Barra and Mark Reuss share the excitement of the Cadillac ATS winning 2013 North American Car of the Year. With them, GM has two young, smart, passionate lifers who are within a year in age and have been with the company since college.

The only other candidate for this job in our eyes was Mark Reuss. He is a consummate product guy, which is really what this business is about. It makes sense to keep your product guy in a position where he won’t be burdened by the compromises that frequently have to be made in big business. As enthusiasts, we were pulling for him, but the argument against putting him at the top was, in fact, his own father, a great product guy who took a fall as a scapegoat for the problems of General Motors. When Lloyd Reuss lost his position on the board, General Motors and all of its customers lost something very valuable.

So, Mary Barra it is. She only has to do a couple of “simple” things. The cars can’t break; she has to manage production at the right pace; and she has to manage incentives so they don’t take over and ruin the gains that have been made in the past few years. But think about it. She would have to work pretty hard to do as much damage as some of the men in that position have done.

Mostly, she has to count on fellow GM lifer Mark Reuss, who will step into her current job. When Mark tells me he is overjoyed at Mary’s appointment, I believe him, because that’s who he is. I appreciate both of them, and I believe that they have the makings of the best team to run General Motors in decades. And the fact that the company is going to be run by a woman is one of the most amazing feelings I have had in a really, really long time.

Kenneth Herbert
It's hard to believe Geraldine Ferraro's vice presidential candidacy was nearly 30 years ago, yet we've trudged along so slowly since. This is a great moment. Good luck, Mary. I wish you well. 

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