Courtesy of the University of Michigan

The Ross School of Business hosted Mary Barra, General Motors chair and CEO, for a discussion moderated by Lindy Greer, business associate professor for management and organizations, on Tuesday to discuss Barra’s tenure at GM. The pair touched on GM’s change in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion management, crises the automaker has faced and Barra’s vision for the future. The program, powered by the Sanger Leadership Center, is part of the Leadership Dialogues speaker series which aims to inspire the U-M community by inviting accomplished individuals in various fields to share their ideas and perspectives on leadership, organization and management. 

More than 100 community members, including undergraduate students and faculty, attended the in-person event. Greer began the conversation by asking about Barra’s journey as a leader.

“What you’ve achieved to be a woman CEO of one of our big three car companies is incredible,” Greer said. “But I’m curious as you’re looking back in your career, what were the things that helped you the most to get to where you are today, in this amazing position with the chance to create real change.”

Barra responded by reflecting on her own career path, noting the importance of being involved in the physical process of creating a vehicle in addition to understanding the business aspect.

“It starts with producing (a) vehicle, so having that experience (of) actually working in an assembly plant early in my career was very important … really understanding how business works, how businesses measure what (is) important,” Barra said. “With each of the assignments that I had, I always tried to make sure that I was (at) the core of what we do.”

Barra also discussed the time she spent in human resources, along with other experiences that she gained throughout her career. 

“At the end of the day, the success of every company is about its people,” Barra said. “(I try) to make sure I understand key parts of the business, and having worked in an assembly plant, having been a plant manager, having been responsible for product development, having understood HR, all of those things really round out to give me a lot of the skills that I need … as CEO.”

When Greer asked about the company’s change in DEI management, Barra said General Motors strives to eliminate prejudice. Barra commissioned an Inclusion Advisory Board of internal and external leaders in 2020 to promote inclusivity. She also said the company wants to create an environment where everyone feels respected and valued. 

“If we find (bias), we fix it. General Motors (has) a robust diversity program where leaders hold their leaders accountable to make sure that they are developing diverse talent,” Barra said. “We want a culture where everybody comes to work and feels … they can be their best selves and therefore they can do their best work and (create) an environment that recognizes and accepts differences, that celebrates differences.” 

Barra went on to discuss a time GM experienced a crisis and shared how the company handled the tragic incident. In 2014, GM recalled 2.6 million automobiles due to a flaw in the ignition switches, which led to stalling and failures in airbag deployment. The crisis resulted in at least 13 deaths and 32 crashes, costing GM hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation. Barra said her leadership style during that time was guided by three principles: solving the problem, transparency and customer support.

“We gathered a team of people, and we were guided by three principles,” Barra said. “We’re gonna do everything we can. We’re going to be transparent. We’re going to do everything we can to support the customer. And we’re gonna do everything in our power to make sure it never happens again … As I reflect now, (what I learned is that) you’ve got to do the right thing, even when it’s hard.”

Towards the end of the conversation, Greer asked Barra for her opinion on the direction of the automotive industry. She said autonomous and electric vehicle technologies are critical for the competitive future. 

“We think in dense urban environments, autonomous (vehicles) will be more important, but we actually saw through COVID (that) people really value their own transportation,” Barra said. “Whether it’s personal, autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles … we know the key technologies that are going to be important. We’re trying to lead in those technologies. We have a view that I won’t completely lay out for you because it’s competitive information.”

Tifani Sadek, a clinical assistant professor of Law, attended the session and asked Barra how a leader can find balance between being democratic and making a decision when the answer is unclear. 

“How much do you get consensus and how much do you say okay, ‘I’m the leader and I need to make a decision?’” Sadek said. “How do you navigate which course to go and make decisions like that when there’s not a clear answer?”

Barra responded by saying to only ask for people’s opinions when you know you really need them.

“Don’t ask the question, if you already know the answer,” Barra said. “I learned (to) ask for input when you really want input, because if you get input (and simply) ignore it, you don’t build camaraderie with your team.”

Barra concluded her discussion with a final word of advice to the audience. 

“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” Barra said. “If you work hard, and you care about people and you have passion in what you do, you’ll do well.” 

Daily News Contributor Serina Jiang can be reached at