Laura Colby Discusses Mary Barra, the World's Most Powerful Female CEO

Laura Colby Discusses Mary Barra, the World's Most Powerful Female CEO

Laura Colby (photo by Lori Hoffman)

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Thursday, April 9, 2015 - 9:45am

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Originally posted on Bloomberg Now.

How did Mary Barra smash the glass ceiling? In The Road to Power: How GM’s Mary Barra Shattered the Glass Ceiling (Wiley 2015), veteran journalist Laura Colby explores how the daughter of a die maker drove herself to the top of the automotive industry to become the first female CEO of General Motors.

Laura, who has been at Bloomberg for 15 years, is on the Education beat. Previously she was the managing editor of Bloomberg Markets. We sat down with her in early March to discuss Barra’s career path, management style, and the qualities that make her an industry leader.

Is Mary Barra the world’s most important female CEO?
She probably is because General Motors is a big iconic company in a male-dominated industry. The auto industry is so important to the economy. The only companies that might become more important are the Googles of the world, but they are a generation behind GM in terms of promoting female leaders.

What characteristics allowed her to succeed at GM?
She comes from a working class family in the Midwest. She and her brother are the first in their family to go to college. So it’s even more remarkable for someone from that background to make it to the top of a corporation like GM. How did she do it? That’s what I wanted to find out. Are there any lessons there for other women and for other companies?

Barra showed from a very young age that she had natural management ability. People repeated that characterization of her. Her style is not to step back and be self-effacing; it’s to promote teamwork. She says: “Okay, what do we have to do? Here’s how we’re going to do it. Can you handle this part? Can you handle that part?” And that is a very strong skill.

Is Barra’s story a metaphor for women in the workforce?
Yes, she’s not an outlier. At GM, there is a whole cohort of women who were primed for leadership roles. Some of them were headhunted away and have high positions at other places. And at other companies, there were women going through the same thing at the same time as her.

If you look at the people who are being named to the top positions in corporate America and in government — like Janet Yellen — you see women getting into these very high positions for the first time because this is the group of women for whom the doors were first opening back in the early 1980s. They were in their twenties then and now they’re in their fifties. That’s the time when people get to the peak of their career. This is still a minority group, but there could be a generation behind them that might be stronger and deeper. This could be a sea change.

What surprised you most about her?
I was surprised by how direct, straightforward and warm she could be. I think that her public persona is more controlled. After she became CEO Barra immediately went through a tremendously difficult time. GM had been selling cars with faulty ignition switches for ten years and dozens of people lost their lives. So she was facing a firestorm of criticism. In public she had to be very controlled. But if you talk with her about things outside of that, she’s a much more relaxed person.

What questions about her remain unanswered?
I think it would be useful for people to know a bit more about how she manages her personal life. She told a little bit about that in the book, but she was pretty guarded about talking about her personal life.

She has a very supportive family – she has two kids – but to get to that level in a corporate job, there are always tradeoffs. There are challenges and it would have been helpful for her to talk a bit more about how she handles them.

What can we learn from her about how to grow in our career?
She’s always advised other people to take stretch assignments. It’s something that women maybe have a little bit more difficulty with than men do. So if somebody offers you a job and you haven’t done that kind of job before, like Barra going into communications or human resources, well, she said, “Go ahead and try it and stretch yourself and challenge yourself.” That’s how you grow and that’s how you become a better manager and more valuable employee.

Another thing is her idea of working hard so nobody really owes you anything. We all work hard here, but she gave me a very good example: What do you do if you’re a woman and a guy works with you and he’s getting all the good opportunities and you feel like you’re not getting your fair share or your fair shake? The answer, she said, is “Work harder. Life isn’t fair, but if you work harder than anybody else, people are going to notice and they’re going to give you opportunities.”

She also cautioned against complaining about things that you may not be able to control. Work on what you can control.

Did writing this book teach you anything about yourself?
That I really like working on books. It was really fun! I’ve always wanted to do a book. I’m very self-directed and I like of diving into one subject.

I also learned a bit on a personal level. I’m kind of in Barra’s cohort. I started college as an engineering student like her but I wound up going into journalism. It was interesting to revisit that time and remember my own experiences. I didn’t work in any factories, but there were certainly cases where people didn’t treat women as equals at that time.

Which of her life lessons appeal to you?
I like her idea of owning your own career. Figure out what you want to do and try to do it. And work hard.

* Get your copy of Road to Power from Wiley, Amazon, or Barnes & Nobles.

Contributed by Shaun Randol, who works in Employee Communications at Bloomberg, LP.