Car talk (and more!) with Mary Barra, GM’s new chief

February 6, 2014, 4:56 PM UTC

Mary Barra is not the type of boss who ever thought she’d be featured in Fortune, let alone sit atop the magazine’s inaugural Most Powerful Women in global business ranking. The first woman in her family to go to college, she worked her way through General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) as an engineering intern at a Pontiac factory — the same brand of car that her dad had worked on during his 39 years as a diemaker. She made it into a fast-track training program, got a GM fellowship to Stanford (MBA, ’90), and went on to master diverse jobs — assistant to CEO Jack Smith; assembly plant manager; vice president of global manufacturing engineering; HR chief; head of global product development, purchasing, and supply chain — with low-ego finesse and the courage to shake things up. As HR boss after GM’s bankruptcy filing in 2009, Barra simplified employee rules and boiled the company’s 10-page dress code down to two words: “Dress appropriately.” As product chief, she got involved in restructuring Opel in Europe, and she pushed GM (GM) to build better vehicles on fewer platforms.

“I hope that Mary Barra turns out to be the Alfred Sloan of the 21st century,” says Warren Buffett, referring to the carmaker’s most renowned CEO. His Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) owns some 40 million shares of GM. “From what I’ve seen, she’s got the goods.” Today the company ranks No. 22 on Fortune’s Global 500 list and is the world’s second-largest automaker, behind Toyota (TM). GM is back to profitability and no longer in debt to the U.S. government. But its share in the U.S. market is running flat at a recent 17.5%, vs. 33% in 1994. Barra recently spoke with Fortune about her world of challenges, the future of cars, and her new gig, effective Jan. 15, as General Motors’ first female CEO.

Is one of your goals to make GM the world’s most profitable automaker?

Our goal is to make General Motors the most valuable automotive company. Clearly, that is having sustainable profitability and driving great returns for our shareholders.

What’s the most critical thing that you will do as CEO?

There are several things that I’m focused on. One is that we continue to design, build, and sell the best vehicles for every segment [in which] we choose to compete. I think we have great opportunity to continue to build our brands and strengthen Cadillac and Chevrolet, our two global brands. They’re flanked by some very important regional brands — for instance, Opel in Europe. We clearly have to make sure that in every market we choose to compete in, we operate profitably and we maintain our fortress balance sheet, because this is a cyclical business.

Mary, as head of HR, you reduced rules and policies. As head of global product development, you reduced executive layers and production platforms. As CEO, what do you plan to reduce?

There’s an opportunity to continually reduce complexity. I want to really empower the teams to be innovative. We have great innovation in pockets — the Volt being one example. But I want to make sure that we’re being innovative across the board. My definition of “innovative” is providing value to the customer.

So what is GM’s biggest challenge right now?

I’ll answer the question as, What do I think our biggest opportunities are? We have a position of strength in China. [We need] to build on that. Another huge opportunity for General Motors is Cadillac. We have the right products and the right portfolio, and we’re committed to regaining our status as a true luxury brand.

What GM car has the biggest gap between public image and actual quality?

The Chevrolet Impala. We launched that last year. It’s a beautiful car. If you read some of the external assessments by industry experts, that car competes with premium brands. I’m hoping people are saying, “Hey, this is a vehicle, this Chevrolet Impala. I’ve got to take notice.”

What’s your career philosophy?

My parents were both born and raised in the Depression. They instilled great values about integrity and the importance of hard work, and I’ve taken that with me to every job. Another kind of core tenet is: I believe in the power of teamwork, and I think you will have superior results if you are aligned and win the hearts and minds of your employees if they understand where the company is going and they’re all in.

Have you ever asked for a promotion?

No, I have not.

Have you ever asked for a raise?

No, I have not.

What does that reflect about your approach to your career?

What I always say is, “Do every job you’re in like you’re going to do it for the rest of your life and demonstrate that ownership of it.” You deliver and produce results and you do it with high integrity and teamwork, and it’ll all work out. You don’t have to ask for different jobs, and you don’t have to ask for raises.

Have you had a turning point in your career?

When I was asked to lead human resources as the company was coming out of the bankruptcy, we were going to work to change the view of the company both inside and outside. Prior to that, my whole career had been primarily in operations and engineering. I learned a lot in that role. I was involved with the senior staff on a lot of strategic issues, and I think that enabled me to transition into global product development.

Did anyone warn you against taking the HR job because it’s the stereotypical female job that a lot of women are advised not to take if they want to get to the top?

Absolutely. I had people from within and outside the company saying, “Hmm.” But when I looked at it, I said, “Hey, there’s a real opportunity here to make sure we start with the right plan in place to really engage our workforce.” So I was committed. Human Resources deserves a lot of respect.

You had no HR background before becoming chief of HR. You had no specific product oversight before heading product development. How do you get up to speed quickly?

I go in, ask a lot of questions, demonstrate the desire to learn, and really understand the key areas of the business. Then I think of it like an onion. You learn the first layer, and then you peel back and you peel back. And over not that long a period of time, you can have a very good grasp of the organization. The other advice I give is: Have the right team. If you need to make changes, make those changes.

What core message are you delivering as you travel to China and Europe and Latin America?

There’s no right turn or left turn in our strategy. We have a sound strategy. We need to accelerate the implementation of it. I want to make sure that employees around the globe understand the plan is the plan. Because I don’t want to lose a minute.

In Europe, you’re investing heavily in a weak brand, Opel, and have lost billions. What is Opel’s advantage as it competes with BMW and Mercedes?

General Motors is a global automotive company. You have to have a strong presence in Europe. There’s been tremendous improvement in recognition of Opel. If people give the products a chance and get the opportunity to drive them consistently, they’re surprised and delighted by the strength of the Opel product line.

What does the car of the future look like?

We’ll continue to see trends of increased efficiency from a fuel-economy and a CO2 performance perspective. We’ll continue to see trends relating to autonomous driving and safety features. And people are so tied to their smartphones and key consumer-electronics products. So we’ll see the marriage of those into the vehicle in a way that is safe and doesn’t create driver distraction.

Do you still drive yourself to work?

Yes, I do.

What are you driving?

I’m driving a Cadillac CTS. We own a Camaro SS — the Camaro’s one of my husband’s and my favorite cars. We own a GMC Sierra pickup truck that my son, Nick, drives. We also own a Tahoe, and we’re in what has turned into a multiyear search for the perfect older Camaro. We continue to look for that, but we’ve been a little busy lately.

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