Is CEO Mary Barra the right woman for the job?

General Motors CEO Mary T Barra at Recall Congressional Hearing

General Motors CEO Mary T Barra at Recall Congressional Hearing

The idea of writing an article about Mary T. Barra, General Motor Co.’s Chief Executive Officer, and one of the few women to lead an US Fortune 500 company, has been haunting me since she assumed the realm of the automaker about nine months ago.

It is uncommon that a woman would be offered such a position not because we do not deserve it– but because for us, women, the glass ceiling seems to be thicker and harder to break. Numbers speak for themselves. According to Catalyst, less than five percent of women are CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies.

Women of color are even more underrepresented. According to Latina Magazine, only five percent of Latinas are sitting on Fortune 500 boards. Out of the 20 female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies, only four are women of color, which paints a pretty grim reality for women of any race.

Much has been discreetly –or openly– discussed about the leadership values of women in the workplace. If they are nice, they are seen as less assertive than men or, the opposite, a self-confident woman risks to be seen as “difficult” or “opinionated.”

Barra, 53, seems to just have confirmed one of them, “…I was too nice,” she said at an interview before the investors’ meeting announcing new strategies for her company, the Wall Street Journal printed edition reported. “I hate the word culture,” apparently referring to GM’s internal way of doing things. “Culture is really just how we all behave,” and continued to affirm GM employees need to start acting differently, starting with her own behavior.

Being too nice and agreeable in a corporation plagued with mismanagement, lack of accountability and disperse responsibility for decisions that resulted in thousands of deaths and injuries –costing the company hefty fines and liability charges– does not seem to be the right course of action. The car manufacturer not only has lost market share but also its stock has fallen 17 percent since Barra took over, according to The Wall Street Journal. Not surprisingly, Wall Street has given Barra the thumb down.

Is it because she is a woman? Most importantly, the question I had since her nomination: Was she offered the job by the Board of Directors because she was a woman? Complaints and lawsuits against the major automaker started 17 years ago so directors must have been aware of the situation waiting to implode sooner or later. Whoever was leading the organization at the time of exposure was going to be accountable for facing Congressional inquiries, federal investigations and the public’s angry judgment, while confronting the hardest internal decisions if the company still wanted to survive in a very convoluted and competitive market.

Maybe they thought a woman’s presence would soften the impact of the charges. At the Congressional hearings, she was noticeably nervous and distressed. She was named to succeed Dan Akerson, but before this position, Barra served as the Executive Vice President of Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain. Being a native GM born employee –she started working there at 18 –, she must have heard about the complaints.

However, at an interview published by the New York Times in November of 2013, just before her nomination as CEO, Barra did not acknowledge her candidacy or the internal situation at the Detroit giant. The interview is a fluff. She is lengthily questioned about the role of women at GM, how the culture has changed through the years –and the cars she drive. Really? Is that line of questioning appropriate for someone whose name is sounding as future CEO of a company jam-packed with problems?

As for her, what was her motivation to take the position? Did she feel more capable than any man to succeed in this difficult quest?

Since the 90s, five men CEOs preceded Barra, three of them plunged the automaker in billions of dollars in loss, and Akerson only achieved profit because he stepped into the position after the bankruptcy years. None of these men, not even Rick Wagoner –who dug the automaker into bankruptcy–, was ever faulted for their “man” leadership values. They were just making a succession of bad decisions.

However, if Barra fails to take GM out of the hole, will she be judged by her lack of knowledge and skilled steering or just because she is a Mary Barra2“woman”?

“If we take the time to examine the world that’s rising out of the ashes [of recession],” says Alexandra Levit in her new book Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success, “we see …a major paradigm shift…Inside the business world, organizations and individuals are looking inward and seeking a return to traditional human values like honesty, trust, moderation, open communications, and one-on-one relationship building.”

Although generalizations cannot be made across the board, in my view, these are values women bring to the workplace and to leadership. It is in our nature to be personal and openly discuss our problems, and we seek advice from others –friends, family or colleagues– to make our own decisions.

When on the road, we are not afraid to ask for directions, but we follow our own journey. When things get ugly, we prefer open communication and we trust ourselves in making the right decision at any time because we know we have the support of those cheering for us.

I really push for Barra’s success, and hope she would use her woman’s values to lead GM. If she does, she will open thousands of doors for the rest of us.


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