GM’s Barra Tells Employees “No Crappy Cars”

Product executive empowering people use ingenuity to drive innovation.

by on Oct.18, 2013

Is GM product czar Mary Barra on her way to becoming the maker's next CEO?

The marketing teams at large companies spend thousands of hours and even more dollars to develop effective campaigns and slogans to cast their companies in just the right light. General Motors’ Mary Barra may have the best one of all: “No more crappy cars.”

At least, that’s the message Barra, GM’s executive vice president of global product development and global purchasing and supply chain, been relaying to employees at the Detroit-based automaker.

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Considering she’s considered by many to be the front-runner for the CEO’s spot when Dan Akerson leaves the company, folks might wise to heed her advice.

During Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women Summit on Wednesday, she spoke to many issues she’s facing or faced during her tenure at the automaker, including her desire to empower employees.

“(Employees) want to go and do their best. I feel so much of what I need to do is set up the systems, enable the processes and have the right leadership,” Barra said, adding that finding ways to motivate employees is tough at a company with a long history.

She’s worked at “getting rid of that bureaucracy that can creep into a company that’s a hundred years old,” she said, especially during her time in charge of human resources at the company.

Barra introduced a lot of common sense into many areas of human resources, in particular GM’s policy manual. She cited the company’s 10-page dress code as one example of cutting through bureaucracy.

She said that the varied roles and tasks of GM employees led her to simplify the mandate to “dress appropriately.” She noted people in charge of million-dollar budgets probably don’t need a lot insight on how to dress appropriately.

As the executive in charge of GM’s $15 billion vehicle development operations, her challenge is continue the company’s product evolution, including producing compelling vehicles for customers.

“We’re on a journey,” she explained. “We want to make sure we’re engaging our employees and really tapping into their innovation and ingenuity in the vehicles we develop.”

Turning that creatively loose is the key to being successful, especially since the company is competing in more market segments than ever.

“If we’re going to compete in a segment in any market, we are going to go to win. The team has rallied round that.”

Perhaps the biggest effort in product development centers on delivering vehicles to customers that they want…at the price point that fits. It’s not a simple task, but critical to adding dollars to the bottom line, she said. This means knowing what trade offs must me made, for example cutting down the top-end speed of a Corvette in exchange for a dramatic increase in fuel economy.

(Akerson says a woman CEO is “inevitable.” For more, Click Here.)

“The key to that is knowing the customer,” she said, adding that GM performs an enormous amount of research, including spending time with past customers, to gain the insights necessary to find the right blend of trade offs and benefits.

Barra didn’t address her potential ascension to the top spot during the interview, focusing instead on her current role at the automaker.

(Click Here to read about GM’s new pickups being hit by a recall.)

The 51-year-old Barra is part of a short list who have broken through the industry’s glass ceiling into positions normally reserved for men, in this case overseeing GM’s global product development process.  Notably, Forbes Magazine named Barra the 41st most powerful woman in the world in 2012, moving her up to position number 35 when that list was updated this year.

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One Response to “GM’s Barra Tells Employees “No Crappy Cars””

  1. Jorge M. says:

    I hope she can change the culture at GM. There is absolutely no reason for any major car maker to be making and selling crappy autos.

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