Mary Barra’s bumpy ride at the wheel of GM

Mary Barra

General Motors
Executive vice president global product development & global purchasing & supply chain Barra picked up a big promotion at GM in August when she added purchasing and supply chain to her duties. Her new responsibilities boosted her standing as a favorite to succeed CEO Dan Akerson in 2014 -- an historic first for a woman in Detroit. Barra's management mantra is a simple one: "No more crappy cars."

Time‘s latest cover story puts the high beams on General Motors CEO Mary Barra, looking at everything from the massive car recalls that have plagued her first year leading the iconic automaker to how the GM lifer plans to reshape a company with 219,000 employees and $150 billion in annual revenue.

The recall scandal, covered extensively in the press, includes more than 29 million vehicles called back and at least 21 deaths linked to faulty ignition switches. As part of the fallout, Barra (No. 2 on Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women 2014 list) has been called in front of Congress (twice!) to be grilled on the rigid GM (GM) culture that led to a nearly decade-long delay in dealing with the switch issue. GM now faces more than 100 death claims filed by victims’ families and the company expects to pay between $400 million and $600 million in compensation to settle them.

The Time article goes in-depth into the hard blow the recall scandal dealt Barra soon after she took over as CEO and how she will look to change what Foroohar calls “a dysfunctional corporate culture” at GM while also figuring out the best way to outsell the company’s automaker rivals.

For a look at the whole story, you can go to (the article is only available in full for subscribers). Here, we’ve picked out a few interesting tidbits to come out of the story by Time‘s Rana Foroohar:

– Barra was about two weeks into the CEO gig when she took a call in her car from GM product-development head Mark Reuss, who alerted her to the fact that the company would need to issue a major recall related to the ignition switch problem. Barra tells Foroohar: “‘And then I literally can’t remember [what happened next], because there was a period of probably 30 days where–I don’t want to say it was a blur–but things were happening so quickly as we started to look through what we needed to do.'”

– Barra says “‘one of the saddest days'” of her career came when she read through the 325-page report from former U.S. Attorney Anton Valukas, who conducted GM’s internal investigation and found that the company had known about the ignition switch failure since 2001 but waited years to seek a solution. “‘It was like a punch,'” Barra says.

– Perhaps the biggest challenge for Barra will be to reshape the GM culture, though Fortune recently wrote about how the ignition switch scandal might actually help Barra reform the culture, which she has been around for most of her life. As Foroohar puts it: “The question now is whether a woman who’s never worked outside that culture, who was supported in college and business school by the company and whose father spent 39 years as a GM diemaker, can fundamentally change it.”

– Foroohar sees the ignition switch issue as a symptom of GM’s culture, in which employees struggle to think holistically: “In GM’s old-think view, the switch crisis was the result of a mistaken step in a long process: the engineer in charge of the switches redesigned the faulty part without renumbering it, thus obscuring a change that could have helped various divisions uncover the issue in mysterious reports of stalled cars over the years. But the mislabeling of the switch problem early on, as a ‘customer satisfaction’ issue rather than a safety issue, also reflects an internal practice of hoarding rather than sharing information. People were afraid to pass bad news up the food chain. In management-theory speak, GM is a deeply ‘siloed’ place. And that’s not healthy.

– Former GM vice chairman Bob Lutz – who, Foroohar says, had backed Reuss for the CEO role over Barra – may think of the current CEO as being “‘nonconfrontational'” (and, not in a good way), but Lutz does appreciate that her background is in engineering, not finance. “‘She’s always been on the side of the company that actually makes things. And that’s a good sign, because those people are way more grounded in the reality of what goes on as opposed to the financial folks who float at the top and delegate everything,'” he tells Foroohar.

– The Time article reports that Barra and her team have already acted on “about 90%” of the many recommendations laid out in the Valukas report, including an increased focus on safety and creating an environment where employees are comfortable speaking up about a problem.

– Among the fellow leaders who Foroohar says Barra admires is JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon. Barra says she appreciates how “‘transparent'” Dimon was in the wake of the devastating 2008 stock market crash. The GM CEO has also been reading Condoleeza Rice’s memoir and is fascinated by how the former Secretary of State shares her thought process during the various crises faced during her time in the Bush administration.

For more on the challenges Barra faces at GM, see Fortune’s recent feature “Mary Barra’s (unexpected) opportunity.”

(Fortune’s Alan Murray will interview Barra on Oct. 8 as part the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit.)

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