Auto-motivated: how Mary Barra can really take the lead at GM

When Mary Barra was named CEO of General Motors in December 2013 – the first woman to head a major automaker—my friend and leadership expert Leslie Grossman declared on a LinkedIn group: “Experience Trumps Gender!”That celebratory headline caught my eye. I was tempted to click “like” without further thought. But from what I subsequently gleaned from colleagues who know the newly anointed Fortune 50 CEO and the automobile industry, it took much more than experience for Barra to land this position. In fact, her gender played a key role in four ways.GM CEO Mary BarraFirst, the published reports of Barra’s leadership style, repeatedly describing her as “low key” and “inclusive,” were like reading McKinsey studies documenting characteristics of women’s leadership that result in higher return on investment for companies that have greater numbers of women in upper management and on their boards.Second, I’m told this first ever female head of a major automotive company adeptly walks a politically delicate line between using her advantageous timing, talents, and uniqueness as a woman executive in a male-dominated industry to propel herself forward – while not pushing the gender stereotype envelope too far. Many female firsts have felt obligated to do this. As one colleague said to me, “Mary is definitely one of those ‘Influential Insiders’ (I’m no feminist but…) women. But many GM friends also say she has helped other women move up in the company… she is playing the game quite well – her way!“Those who know her say she will not discuss gender parity even though women are cheering her breakthrough and her gender is now an advantage. “My gender doesn’t really factor into my thinking when I come into the room,” she is quoted in the Detroit Free Press as saying.While it curdles my feminist blood to hear that, I hope that as she gains confidence from success, she will grow in her commitment to advancing women. Women need to get around her, support her, and reward her for every step she takes in that direction.Third, Barra had the good sense to align with a powerful sponsor, a technique for advancement essential for both men and women but which women typically must seek more proactively. Fortunately for her, her sponsor, who happened to be her CEO predecessor, departed sooner than anticipated due to his wife’s illness. Thus she avoided the dangerous shoals of mentor/sponsor conflicts that can arise when the more powerful of the pair feels his position threatened or the less powerful member starts chafing at the bottleneck when the sponsor stays long in the job she wants.The fourth way Mary Barra’s ascent reflects more than experience trumping gender is simple economics. The auto industry has awakened to the knowledge that women are the majority of their customers now. According to Forbes: “Women buy 52 percent of all new cars sold in the U.S., influence more than 85 percent of all car purchases and are the fastest growing segment of buyers for new and used cars. All told, women have full or partial say over a staggering $80 billion worth of spending on cars.” If a business does not look like its customers, the customers soon go elsewhere.But for all that heartening news, it was immensely disturbing to learn that Barra initially appeared to have accepted a compensation package less than half that of her predecessor. Anne Doyle, author of Powering Up, wrote after the initial revelations about Barra’s pay: “Now, GM has egg all over its face because…of the unconscionable pay gap between what Mary Barra is earning ($4.4M; $1.6M base pay), compared to her predecessor, Dan Akerson, ($9M, base pay $1.7M). To add insult to injury, Akerson — who had no auto industry experience when he became CEO — is now earning more as an outside “adviser” ($4.6M) than the woman with 33 years of GM experience running the company!”However, later GM announced that Barra’s compensation annual compensation will be $14.4 million — with up to $10 million of that in the form of long-term incentives. Doyle’s response to the updated information is insightful and explains much of why gender remains as a leadership issue.“The mistake that GM made wasn’t in determining the pay of the first woman to run a major auto company,” Doyle wrote. “It was in how to begin to introduce their new CEO, who has just stepped into the glare of the global business and media spotlight. In assuming that the media would patiently wait until the spring to hear the full story of her compensation, GM was tone deaf to the growing drumbeat of attention to the gender pay gap, putting them on thin ice right out of the gate.”Barra’s story illustrates the complexities that face women in top leadership positions today. She is precisely the sort of leader I hope will participate in the Feb. 19 Take the Lead Launch Event. The event, which takes place at ASU Gammage, is co-hosted by ASU and an organization I co-founded, Take The Lead, which aims to prepare, develop, inspire and propel women to take their fair and equal share of leadership positions across all sectors by 2025. The launch will feature Lean In author and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Morgan Stanley Vice Chair of Wealth Management and chair of the National Women’s Business Council Carla Harris, and other accomplished women.Together, we’ll discuss and commit to take on the challenge of closing the leadership gap between men and women by 2025 and the pay gap much sooner. If you’re interested in promoting leadership parity – which benefits us all, male and female alike – please consider attending the event. You can also register today to watch the event’s livestream. Either way, you’ll get a takeaway that can dramatically accelerate your own career.Let’s take the lead for women together!(P.S. Life members and Gold Devil Life members of the ASU Alumni Association are eligible for complimentary tickets to the Take the Lead event – click to claim yours today!)


This post originally appeared on the ASU Alumni Organization