5 Management Lessons from GM CEO Mary Barra

Mary Barra

By Yvonne Milosevic

If you ask Mary Barra whether the glass is half empty or half full, her answer may surprise you. “For me, the glass is three-quarters full,” she says. “That’s just the way I approach it.” Barra, the eternal optimist, has held the CEO position at General Motors since 2014. She’s also the first woman to run a major global automaker.

In this wide-ranging conversation with Bill Boulding, dean of Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, Barra shared five management lessons that have fueled her successful career. Read on for tips on how you can become a more effective leader, and create a better working environment for all.

Create a climate that encourages people to speak up.

“Good ideas can come from anywhere,” says Barra. Make sure there’s no fear in the organization, and people feel comfortable to speak up. Take a page from GM’s playbook. Build up a diverse team of people from different industries, countries, genders, and backgrounds. Inclusion is crucial: all employees should feel they have a chance to make an impact.

“If we all just come into the room, and we all think the same, and immediately come to the same answer, we haven’t really circled the issue well enough to really debate what’s the right next step,” Barra says.

Develop a positive mindset.

When things go wrong, Barra says, you can either bemoan the past, or you can say, “What am I going to do about it?” She credits her can-do attitude in part to her engineering background. She approaches problems with what she calls “action orientation” and the belief that you can find a solution.

The science supports Barra on this one. A recent study out of Stanford confirms that success lies in the power of positive thinking and starts at a young age. But it’s never too late to work on developing a sunnier outlook.

Don’t make assumptions.

Leaders—both men and women—often make assumptions about what an employee can or can’t do, Barra says. It goes something like, “Oh, this person recently got married; therefore, they’re not able to take a transfer to China.” Or, “This woman just had children, so of course, she can’t take this job that requires irregular hours.”

Don’t take them out of career opportunities without getting their input first. Sometimes the answer is no…for now. Maybe they need the flexibility to care for an ailing parent or a child. But it’s not a “forever” answer. “So don’t assume, ask,” says Barra.

Have a passion for the work you’re doing.

“If you’re going to do a job, do it like you’re going to do it for the rest of your life,” Barra advises. “You don’t need to sign up for 38 years like I have,” she says, but invest yourself 100 percent.

Otherwise, Barra quips, you sound like a renter. “You’re not committing,” she explains. “You’re just like,’ Okay, I’m going to live here for two years. I’m going to see what I get. See what I learn. Then I’m going to move to my next bigger apartment’.” When you commit, then you’re looking at, ‘how do I make things here work better/smarter/faster?’

Try group mentoring for greater success.

New research points to the success of group mentoring, rather than one-on-one. It’s more efficient from the leader’s perspective, Barra explains, if you can mentor two or three people at the same time. Plus, the peer-to-peer mentoring that occurs is also valuable.

People learning what someone else is struggling with may help them now or in the future, Barra says.

Now that we’ve shared some management wisdom from Mary Barra, we’ll leave you with these final thoughts from GM’s CEO. “Not everything needs changing. Some things need protecting. And that can be just as important, challenging, and rewarding as changing the world.”