Does it seem odd for Mary Barra, the newly appointed CEO of General Motors—the first woman to hold that top position in the male-dominated automobile industry–to be profiled as a “woman like you” by the nonprofit organization Take The Lead I cofounded in late 2012?
According to reports chronicling Barra’s career path, she fits the earthy description quite well. The daughter of a die-maker who worked for GM 39 years and who herself entered the company’s technical school at age 18 to become an engineer, Barra’s step-by-step journey up through the ranks might speak of authenticity, hard work, and focus.
In the midst of the media flurry about Barra’s new role, my friend Leslie Grossman tweeted: “Experience Trumps Gender!”
But what I gleaned from colleagues who know both Mary Barra and the auto industry, it took way more than experience for her to land this position. And her 30-year trajectory could be a textbook for women like you and me.
First, the published reports of Barra’s leadership style read like McKinsey studies of the 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. She’s described as a hard worker, a consensus builder, a team player whose people skills are lauded as much as her intense competitiveness. That’s authenticity—not trying to be other than who you are.
Second, her colleagues observe with admiration that this female steel ceiling-breaker, as my friend and former Ford executive Anne Doyle calls it adeptly, walks the politically delicate line between using her advantageous timing as a talented woman in traditionally testosterone driven industry to propel herself forward while not pushing the gender stereotype envelope too far.
As one person said to me, “Mary is definitely one of those ‘Influential Insider’ (I’m no feminist but….) women.” Still, say others, Barra has helped women move up in the company: “She is playing the game quite well – her way!”
Third, Barra aligned with a powerful male sponsor. Her timing was right with that too, since her sponsor, who happened to be her predecessor, Daniel Akerson, left sooner than anticipated due to his wife’s illness. Thus Barra avoided the dangerous shoals of mentor/sponsor conflicts that have wrecked many a relationship when the mentor feels his position threatened, or the ambitious mentee chafes waiting for the sponsor to leave.
While it chills my hot feminist blood to hear her peers say she won’t discuss gender parity, Mary Barra’s personal story and humble beginnings give me hope that as she gains confidence from success as CEO, she will continue to grow in her commitment to advancing other women. That’s important to leadership parity because as Anne Doyle observed, having female role models boosts the talent pool of women who might not have previously seen themselves in the picture. It’s incumbent on women like all of us to support her and reward her for every step she takes in that direction.