Mary Barra, First Female GM CEO, Takes The Lead

GM Mary Barra

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.

 

Pass Your Power Forward

Regular guest columnist Anne Doyle wrote this post for International Women’s Day, but it applies every day. It reminds me about how important symbols are, and is a great example of what I call “Sister Courage”–be a sister, have courage, and work together like a movement with sister courage. Here’s the link to the original on Anne’s website if you want to connect with her there. I’m so proud of Anne for running for city council (and winning!), as well as admiring her leadership ideas.

Nearly two years ago, just before I was to give a speech before a group of Michigan businesspeople, I met a woman who was wearing a very unusual, intriguing pin.   I complimented her on it and she told me how much she loved it.

After my speech, the same woman came up to me, handed me the pin and told me she wanted me to have it.   “Oh no, I couldn’t take your pin.  I know it’s very special to you.”  She insisted, but told me there was a string attached to her gift.  “You must promise me that one day you will give this pin to another woman,” she said.  “I am giving it to you with the understanding that you will pass it forward.”  “How long can I keep it?” I asked her.  She simply said, “You will know when it’s time to pass the pin and its power forward.”

There is something almost magical about the pin, and I’ve loved it.  Every time I put it on, I felt empowered by the woman who gave it to me. But as much as I hated to give it up, I have known for weeks that the time had come.  I also knew exactly to whom the pin should go next.  I just hadn’t found the right moment to present it to her.

That moment came this past Friday at a breakfast gathering of the Michigan Women Officials Network.  WON, as we call ourselves, is a non-partisan group of women elected officials, judges, public commission appointees and people committed to increasing the number of women in elected office.    The woman I had in mind would be there.   Blanca Fauble is a very special friend who insisted on taking over as my Campaign Manager when I ran for my first political office last fall.   Originally from Peru, she is a bi-lingual, stunningly capable dynamo who gives and gives and gives to others. The fact that I won my election to the Auburn Hills City Council by a landslide is a tribute to her capabilities.   She is also going through one of those life and career transitions that most of us have experienced.  They are always tough and it is easy, particularly for women, to forget how strong our wings truly are and how high we are capable of soaring.

Before the breakfast began, I asked our president, Oakland County Circuit Court Judge Joan Young, if I could take a few minutes to present the pin.  Judge Young and another officer, Troy City Councilwoman Mary Kerwin, urged me to also use the “pinning” to encourage every other woman in the room to find ways to pass her power forward, as well.  As you can see from the photo, the “pinning” turned out to be an emotional, memorable moment between “sisters.”

Sometimes it takes my breath away when I think about how far women have progressed in my lifetime.  At other moments, I stagger under the weight of how far we have to go to end the oppression and brutalization of girls and women throughout the world.  According to the Global Gender Gap Report, issued annually by the World Economic Forum, not a country in the world has achieved gender equity.  The Scandinavian countries are leading the way.  The U.S. has lost ground, slipping from 27th to 31st in the world on how well we divide our resources and opportunities between males and females.  What did they measure?   Economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, political empowerment and survival.

Monday, March 8th is International Women’s Day. I hope you’ll join your sisters from all over the world this week to do something special to remind yourself and the women in your life what a powerful tribe we are.   There is a Chinese proverb which says “Women hold up half the sky.”  Perhaps you’ve read Half the Sky, written by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn. It’s a spectacular book about courageous women from all over the world who are examples of how we can turn gender oppression into opportunity. If you haven’t read it yet, give it to yourself as an International Women’s Day gift.  And then, pass it on to someone else – a man or a woman – who understands that the world will be a better place when we tap the full power of our feminine strengths and stand side-by-side with men, holding up half the sky together.

The next step, which I dream of achieving in my lifetime, is for women throughout the world to come together into a powerful, collective feminine force field.  That transformation will begin when we learn how to share and combine our individual power.  We must be the wind beneath each others’ wings.  Otherwise, none of us will reach the heights we could achieve together.  You don’t need a magical pin to lift another woman.  Pass your power forward.

PHOTOS BY MARGENE SCOTT, Thanks Margene!

About Anne: Anne Doyle is a Detroit-based leadership and communications consultant, former TV journalist and global auto executive. For more, check out her website — and blog.

Thanksgiving to Three Courageous Leaders

On Thanksgiving Eve, I’m grateful to three courageous leaders. First, Dana Kennedy, Executive Director of Emerge Arizona. Dana not only works every day to recruit, train, and support pro-choice Democratic women to run for office, she put her convictions into action by running for Phoenix City Council. Though she didn’t prevail this time, I hope she will run again until she joins the ranks of leadership consultant and occasional guest poster here, Anne Doyle and political blogger par excellence Jill Miller Zimon, both of whom mounted their first political races and won city counil seats in Auburn Hills, MI and Pepper Pike, OH respectively.

As then-AZ Governor Janet Napolitano, now Secretary of Homeland Security, once told me, “You can’t win if you don’t run.” That’s a great leadership lesson, whether we’re talking politics or profession, civic engagement or choosing life goals.

Nervous about taking the plunge? Help is a Google away. In the political realm, check out this report featuring Emerge Arizona.

Leading From Gender to Agenda

My last post was about how leaders put their purses where their principles are; this second of leadership expert Anne Doyle’s regular guest posts on Heartfeldt Politics illustrates how she is putting her principles where her politics are. I am so excited that three women I admire and respect greatly have thrown their hats into the political ring in the last two weeks. I sense a big change just in the year since I started researching this Elle article which found women don’t run for a variety of reasons. What motivated Anne? Here’s her story:

I’ve been politically active for decades. Have worked hard for candidates I believed in. Gave as much money as my budget could bear. Dialed at least a thousand phone calls. Knocked on doors. Served as precinct captain. Even turned my house into a bustling, “get-out-the-vote headquarters” on election day. And I’ve been on the “we need more women in political office” bandwagon for at least a decade.

The one thing I haven’t done is stick my neck out and run for office myself. Until now. I’ve just pulled my petitions and started to gather signatures to get my name on the ballot this November for City Council in Auburn Hills, a rapidly changing, once rural, community 30 minutes north of Detroit, Michigan.

Our former Mayor, one of several people who have repeatedly asked me to run, finally got to me when she said, “Anne you ought to practice what you preach.” What’s my answer to that? Another friend pushed me closer to the political tipping point a few weeks earlier. Dr. Glenda Price, president emeritus of Marygrove College, speaking to an audience of professional women advised, “When someone that you respect says, ‘You know, you really ought to consider” . . . ,then “You really should give it serious consideration.” I thought she was talking directly to me.

So why has it taken me so long to do what I’ve been urging other women to do for years?

Marie Wilson, founding president of The White House Project, says I’m pretty typical. Regardless of their credentials, women rarely wake up in the morning and say to themselves, “I think I’ll run for office.” Men have been doing that for centuries.“Women,” Wilson says, “need to be invited, urged, recruited.” That’s why every single speech she gives, Wilson urges, “Don’t let a day go by without saying to at least one woman,“You should really run for that open seat in the Legislature.” Or, “I hope you’re throwing your name in the hat for . . . (fill in the blank).”Etc. Etc. Etc.

The White House Project, in case you haven’t heard, is a national, non–partisan organization founded in 2004 to train and mobilize a richly diverse, critical mass of women into public leadership – from local offices to the Oval Office. So far, their leadership trainings have opened doors to political leadership for over 6,000 American women. And they’re just getting warmed up.

Last Saturday, I participated in an intense, day-long “Debate Boot Camp” training for candidates, sponsored by the Michigan office of The White House Project. From the moment I met the 20-something other women in the training, I knew I had walked into something powerful. First, it was the most diverse group of women I’ve worked with in a long time – perhaps ever. Generationally, racially and professionally. Our common denominators were: 1) A strong desire to make a difference on our watch; and 2) The willingness to raise our voices and risk challenge, criticism and even defeat.

That’s relatively new stuff for women. For all of our professional achievements, we’re still slogging our way through some pretty thick cultural muck when it comes to raising our hands to Lead.How many times have you heard or even thought to yourself,“Women don’t support one another.” Or, “Women are their own worst enemies.” Those refrains are so old they’re getting moldy.

There was none of that at the White House Project training, which included plenty of frank, constructive feedback — wrapped in encouragement – that each participant received from the other women in the training.By the end of the day, not only had we learned how to use our personal stories to build authenticity with voters and “pivot” when answering off-the-wall questions, we each seemed to stand a little taller when we left.But the best part was the strong sense of Sisterhood that built throughout the day. I haven’t felt that elixir in decades.

Time magazine claims, in this week’s cover story on The Future of Work, that “women will rule business.”We’re on the verge of another big surge for women in this country. This time into leadership. But it’s going to take more than millions of individual achievers all fighting for her piece of the action. Major cultural change requires collective momentum headed in the same direction. Have you asked yourself lately, ‘How am I moving out of my comfort zone and encouraging other women to stretch to their highest levels, too?”

A great way to start is to rent the fabulous and fun documentary, “What’s Your Point, Honey,” which puts a face on young women already eyeing the presidency for 2024. Invite yourfavorite 20-somethings, teens and tweens (daughters, nieces, granddaughters, little sisters?) to watch it with you. Start planting political ambitions early for the next generations. It’s time to get beyond gender and get on with a new agenda.

And by the way, it’s never too late to run for office yourself. Come on in, the water’s fine — so far.