Running a car company isn’t easy, even in the best of times. And Mary Barra’s reign as General Motors’ CEO has been anything but the best of times. She became the first female CEO of an automobile company in 2014, taking the job amidst a massive controversy over faulty ignition switches. In her first year, she had to issue 84 recall notices and testify before the U.S. Senate. Last year, she was faced with the worst auto workers strike in a half century. And then came COVID-19, followed by the upheaval over the George Floyd killing. Oh yes, and then there are the repeated Twitter attacks from the President of the United States.
Throughout it all, Barra has remained unflappable, eschewing the industry’s traditional defensiveness, and always asking: “What can we learn from this?” That’s why Fortune’s Ellen McGirt and I were happy to welcome her as a guest on this week’s edition of our podcast, Leadership Next. She represents a new style of leading.
Ellen started by asking Barra about her strong public statement over the George Floyd killing, in which she said she was “impatient” and “disgusted”–words that emanated from the heart, not the marketing department. “I personally felt very sad,” Barra told us. “I am an action-oriented person. I’m an engineer. And I asked, ‘Why is this happening over and over?’” She felt a need for action. “I knew we can do more, and we needed to do more, with a sense of urgency.”
In response, Barra has not only created an “inclusion advisory board” to guide GM’s actions, but also signed up for the Business Roundtable’s Special Committee for Racial Equality and Justice. Barra was one of the CEOs who pushed the Business Roundtable last year to adopt a new statement of corporate purpose, focusing on multiple stakeholders and not just shareholders. “The statement was catching up with reality,” she says.
Incidentally, Barra believes the COVID-19 lockdown has strengthened the case for electric vehicles. People are skeptical of mass transit and want their own cars. And improvements in the environment over recent months have reinforced the need for those vehicles to be clean. ”We believe in an all-electric future,” she said, and have “accelerated our work from an EV perspective.”
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