GM’s Mary Barra: Crisis manager of the year

December 28, 2014, 4:59 PM UTC

When Mary Barra took the reins at General Motors (GM) last January she could not have expected the roller-coaster of a year she would face in 2014.

Over the past year Barra has presided over perhaps the most challenging time in the automaker’s 106-year history, rivaled only by the bankruptcy the company went through just a few years earlier. Along the way, she has appeared in front of Congress multiple times, and faced the wrath of the American public.

Barra may have been new to the position of CEO, but she was a GM lifer. And this was no small recall she was looking at. It covered millions of vehicles, and at least a dozen deaths related to a faulty ignition switch. GM faced harsh criticism for waiting 11 years to begin recalling millions of cars with ignition-switch problems that have been linked to fatalities — deaths that could have been avoided if the company had responded earlier to the ignition switch problems that caused them.

Somehow, though, even as GM has seen its reputation raked over the coals, Barra has come out more admired and more likely to be emulated than ever. When Barra appeared in front the Senate in June, Senators eviscerated GM in general, specifically then-General Counsel Michael Millikin, who has since stepped down. Barra, though, was consistently praised.

How exactly, then, has Barra emerged with her reputation almost intact? A simple combination of honesty, humbleness, and a seemingly sincere desire to fundamentally change the errors that led to the problems she’s faced.

Barra has made a practice of saying that she doesn’t want GM to “move past” the ignition switch scandal, or to “put it behind” the company. She doesn’t want this to be a bad memory that fades into the background. Instead, she says she wants the scandal to remain a constant reminder of what happens when people don’t do the right thing, and to use it to change the culture of the company.

Compare that to Tony Hayward during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The BP executive always seemed more concerned with moving on with his life, with getting BP past the financial and reputational problems the accident caused, than with actually fixing the problems that led to the spill and helping those affected.

Barra also wasted no time bringing in compensation expert Ken Feinberg, who had run high-profile victim compensation funds for the Sept. 11 attacks and BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He now handles an out-of-court compensation program to pay claims on behalf of people injured, or killed, because of the GM defect. GM gave Feinberg free rein to determine who to compensate and says it will not challenge his decisions.

All in all, it’s not terribly difficult to see why Barra has been viewed so favorably. She seems to genuinely care about not forgetting those who were hurt, and about making sure a similar situation doesn’t happen again. There has been no passing of the buck. It is Barra speaking with investors, appearing on Capitol Hill and going on television. Barra made herself the focal point of a company in crisis — and in doing so, she may have saved an American icon from going further down a self-destructive spiral.