General Motors CEO Mary Barra is a rock star. When was the last time the chief executive of a major company got this much attention so quickly? When was the last time the chief executive of the United States attracted this much attention so early in his term, for that matter?
Most important, is Barra’s stardom good for General Motors?
It began in January at the Detroit auto show, with Barra’s first public appearance. She was, after all, the first woman to lead an automaker. And that automaker was GM, perhaps the most starched and pressed of the Detroit 3. The media literally tripped all over itself trying to get a word with her on the show floor. A couple of weeks later, Barra was a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama for the State of the Union address. All that, and her first month on the job wasn’t even finished.
Then came the ignition switch fiasco. Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions, and other older cars were found to have faulty ignition switches that resulted in crashes, injuries, and thirteen deaths. Barra went back to Washington -- this time for a tense Congressional grilling on Capitol Hill. The highly publicized and costly recall resulted in a black eye for GM just as it was building momentum. Ironically, decade-old cars are obscuring the GM’s current crop of largely excellent products.
Fast forward to spring in New York City, where Barra was again mobbed by the press -- twice in one day -- at events ahead of the auto show. Reportedly, GM’s product boss Mark Reuss (a big dude) maneuvered in between writers and cameras just to give Barra some breathing room. I was at the second event that day, during which Barra revealed the Chevrolet Trax compact crossover. Thankfully, Reuss didn’t have to post up on anyone that time, although a mass of humanity was in attendance. Amid all of this, Barra gave a commencement speech at the University of Michigan and was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people.
On May 15, she’ll have been in charge of the nation’s largest automaker for exactly four months.
It’s worth noting that Barra hasn’t sought any of this attention, and she’s overseeing a recall that stems from problems with cars designed and built when Rick Wagoner (remember him?) was GM’s CEO. Following Wagoner, GM had three other chief executives (Fritz Henderson, Ed Whitacre, and Dan Akerson) before Barra took over.
Barra’s tumultuous start to her career as CEO could end up being a good thing for GM. If the company can weather the recall crisis, it will have a battle-tested CEO who’s comfortable in the public eye. That would be a positive for the industry, as well, which has been lacking a truly transcendent leader since, probably, Lee Iacocca. Alan Mulally came close, but outside of Detroit he’s not exactly a household name. Elon Musk is -- but is he really the guy you want acting as the voice of the American auto industry? Let’s see how the ignition switch situation plays out, but if Barra’s reputation survives relatively untarnished, she could be the strong leader that GM and the auto business need.