The business press is in full froth today over the appointment of Mary Barra to the CEO position at GM, most of it similar to the Wall Street Journal trumpeting, “GM's Promotion of Barra to CEO a Breakthrough for Women.” To grasp the significance of Barra’s ascendency at GM, the world really needs to get past this obsession over her lack of testosterone. The fact that she buttons her shirts right over left in contrast with a hundred and five years of GM CEO’s doing it the opposite way is really not the important point here. The problem with GM has not been one of biology, but of orientation. Accountants have been running the show for as far back as most can remember, and Mary Barra is not an accountant.
The real significance here is that Barra is the first real manufacturing person to run GM in … well, forever. They have had a few product engineers … the brief debacle of Roger Stempel in the early ‘90’s and ‘Engine Charley” Wilson back in the late ‘40’s/early ‘50’s … but Mary Barra is different. While she came into the media spotlight as GM’s product design honcho, she made her bones and came up through the ranks in factories. She actually knows a little bit first hand about what the folks who create customer value on shop floors actually do all day. She actually knows some of them as something other than numbers on a headcount report – which will be a striking first in the GM executive suite.
I wouldn’t expect miracles from her. She is being asked to clean out the Augean Stables and, as good as she might be, she is no Hercules. Consider, for example, that a noteworthy achievement on her GM resume is the abolishment of GM’s management dress code when she briefly ran their HR function a few years ago. Kudos to her for doing so, but it is testament to just how deeply dysfunctional GM is that they even had a dress code as recently as three years ago, and that it was a big accomplishment to get rid of it.
But having someone at the top who knows from personal experience that the accounting numbers do not reflect the reality in the plants; and how the silos and bureaucracy are stifling good work has got to help. But she will have the entrenched GM culture aligned against her. Her change to the dress code notwithstanding it is a safe bet the legions of GM financiers still show up every day in their white dress shirts and ties.
The fact that folks still have relatively low expectations of GM should help buy her some time. If her femaleness plays into it at all, perhaps she can take advantage of the fact that the board will be slow to fire her for fear of being seen as anti-women if she misses a few quarterly earnings projections. Regardless, her appointment is a big step in the right direction for General Motors. It is the first step in the long, painful process of converting GM from a finance company back into a manufacturer, and that is a very good thing.