This Week in Business History- Episode 28

“In 2009, Mary Barra would become Vice President of Global Human Resources. This would be one of her favorite leadership roles, as she was quoted as saying: “I loved that time, because you’re dealing with people. Sometimes people do the craziest things. You see everything in HR. But you also see the goodness of people and how to really help them achieve their goals.””

-Scott Luton, Host, This Week in Business History


On this episode of This Week in Business History, host Scott W. Luton dives into the story of the rise of Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO of General Motors. She has worked at GM since she was 18 & now leads one of the largest companies in the world. Join us to find out some of her key leadership philosophies & experiences.

Special thanks to Deb Couey for research for this episode.


Scott Luton (00:12):

Good morning, Scott Luton here with you on this edition of this week in business history. Welcome to today’s show on this program, which is part of the supply chain. Now family of programming. We’ll take a look back at the upcoming week, and then we share some of the most relevant events and milestones from years past, of course, mostly business focused with a little dab of global supply chain. And occasionally we might just throw in a good story outside of our primary realm. So I invite you to join me on this. Look back in history to identify some of the most significant leaders, companies, innovations, and perhaps lessons learned in our collective business journey. Now let’s dive in to this week in business history.

Scott Luton (01:10):

Hello, and thanks for joining us. I’m your host Scott Luton. And today on this edition of this week in business history, we’re focused on the week of December 21st. Hey, thanks so much for listening to the show before we get started. I want to share a highlight of mine here in recent days. So I served for about four years on active duty with the United States air force. For two of those years, I was stationed in Wichita, Kansas home to McConnell air force base Wichita, by the way, is a wonderful town to live and work in back in 1929, the aeronautical chamber of commerce called Wichita, the air capital of the world. The aviation industry has long had roots in the city, partially because of how nice and flat the area is. It naturally became home to many airfields and aviation pioneers for sure, Cessna, which is now part of Textron was founded in Wichita Beechcraft, which is also now part of Textron was also founded in Wichita, Boeing, Learjet, Airbus, all with a presence in Wichita, Kansas.

Scott Luton (02:12):

So back to my personal highlight this past week, I was able to reconnect with two of my fellow airmen that I served at McConnell air force base with Troy Boozer and Bruce Gillan, AKA booze and Guilbeau. These two leaders were incredible friends, advisors, and mentors to me, really in their own kind of way. And I’ll always be grateful for the role they played in my own personal journey. Being able to reconnect with these incredible people after years and years, and to laugh and share stories over the course of a couple of hours. Well, that was an early Christmas present for me. Folks. You got to hug them, those that have your back and better in your corner. I’m very thankful for one choy Boozer and Bruce Gillan. Okay. So back to this week in business history today, we’re going to dive into story of the first woman to serve as CEO of a major automaker.

Scott Luton (03:05):

We’re going to share the story of one Mary Barra, chairman and CEO of general motors. So stay tuned and thanks again for joining us here on this week in business history, PowerBar team here at supply chain. Now Mary Barra was born on December 24th, 1961 in Royal Oak, Michigan, born into a family of finished descent. Her grandfather had moved to the U S and settled in mountain iron, Minnesota decades earlier. Mary’s father Ray worked for 39 years as a tool and die maker at the Pontiac car factory in Detroit, having worked in the metal stamping industry. I can tell you that a tool and die maker is a trade and craft that requires extraordinary skill, and it’s a tough demanding job as well. I bet Ray and Mary have had a ton of intriguing discussions that through the years, Mary Barra would go on to attend and graduate from what was then called general motors Institute of technology.

Scott Luton (04:06):

It is located in Flint, Michigan, and has since been renamed the Kettering university once referred to as the West point of the automobile industry. The school was renamed in 1998 to honor legendary inventor and GM executive Charles Kettering. You’ve probably heard of Kettering as he really made his Mark as head of research at general motors. One of his quotes that I’ve long appreciated is focused on effective problem solving where so many folks don’t truly understand where the challenge or root cause lies. Kettering stated, quote a problem well stated is a problem half solved in quote, Mary Barra graduated in 1985, earning a bachelor of science in electrical engineering, but how does she pay for her education? You might ask? Well, at the age of 18, Barbara began working for general motors as a co-op. Her job was focused on quality checking fender panels and hoods much of a work was focused on the Pontiac grand Prix.

Scott Luton (05:11):

Barbara has stated in recent interviews that quote, it was not a good time for GM quality in quote there in the early 1980s. And she’d run into a wide variety of defects, but she would continue her formal education using a general motors fellowship to attend Stanford’s graduate school of business. Upon graduation from Stanford general motors promoted her to serve as plant manager of the Detroit Hamtramck plant. Also known as factory zero. It’s an historic plant that was built on the original Dodge factory. Currently it serves as GM’s all electric vehicle assembly plant in her role as plant manager, Barbara would continue to demonstrate her exceptional ability to lead, get results in effectively engage her teams, driving improvement and innovation. As a result, GM would continue to promote Mary Barra in the new roles. In 2008, she became vice president of global manufacturing engineering. In 2009, Mary Barra would become vice president of global human resources.

Scott Luton (06:18):

This would be one of her favorite leadership roles as she was quoted as saying, I love that time because you’re dealing with people. Sometimes people do the craziest things. You see everything in HR, but you also see the goodness of people and how to really help them achieve their goals. In quote, during this point in time, as Barbara led HR for GM, the company was emerging from its financial restructuring. Barbara would say that the timing afforded leadership, the opportunity to quote, really define the culture that we wanted in quote, one of her most notable actions was to take the general motors, 10 page dress code policy, 10 pages at the time and trim it down to just two words dress appropriately. They have about that for empowering and trusting your workforce. But also it was about getting managers to own that policy and give them the responsibility of making adjustments for their own teams.

Scott Luton (07:22):

Mary Barra would say, quote, if managers can’t handle dress appropriately, what other judgments and decisions can’t they handle in quote in a separate interview about the dress code decision, which stirred somewhat of a controversy amongst management at general motors, Mary Barra would say, quote, it really became a window into the change that we needed to make. At general motors. I can trust you with $10 million of budget and supervising 20 people, but I can’t trust you to dress appropriately. It was kind of a step and empowering. So this really encouraged people to step up in quote, in February, 2011, she would become executive vice president of global product development. In this role, Barbara would have a significant impact on the design and quality of the vehicles that GM produced. And Mary Barra had a knack for leading with simplicity as head of global product development. She challenged her teams with a simple motto, no more crappy cars in an interview with fortune magazine, Mary Barra expounded on this philosophy saying that management placed too many boundaries on their workforce at GM.

Scott Luton (08:38):

She would say, quote. So now we’re saying no excuses. If it’s budget, if it’s resources, we have to do great cars, trucks, and crossovers. And it’s our job to enable you to do that. In quote, Mary Barra was so successful in this product development leadership role that in August, 2013, global purchasing and supply chain was added to her responsibility on January 15th, 2014, Mary Barra was named CEO of general motors becoming the first female leader of a major automotive company. Fortune magazine would say, quote, no woman on earth runs a bigger company in revenue terms than Barra in quote, but instantly her leadership ability will be tested by crisis. A long standing issue and ignition switch defect was identified as causing 13 deaths. In fact, it later be identified as causing over 100 deaths action had to be taken immediately. Instantly Mary Barra created a small team that was to meet every single day to guide the company’s response and corrective actions in a largely transparent and successful manner.

Scott Luton (09:52):

Millions of GM cars were recalled. Several company leaders were fired and GM paid $900 million in government funds. And Mary Barra found herself testifying in front of Congress by hiring their CEO from within though, meaning tapping a leader with intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the company and its various functions. General motors was able to lean on Mary bar’s experience and unique understanding, which was critical to navigating the crisis effectively in what some saw as a reward for steady leadership through the ignition switch crisis. Mary Barra was named chairman of the GM board of directors on January 4th, 2016 as chairman and CEO of general motors. Barbara continued to deploy simplicity and communicating a sense of mission to the over 160,000 employees around the world. It comes in the form of the company motto zero crashes, zero emissions, one other motto and behavior that GM has put in place under Mary Barra is innovate.

Scott Luton (11:00):

Now it’s meant to encourage their workforce, not to see how things currently are, but rather see things as they should be focusing on the future state and how to get there. Mary Barra shared a few other key principles of her approach to leadership in a 2019 conference hosted by Wharton. A few of them were one, always asked for feedback from your team in meetings. Use a simple question. Hey, what’s your opinion too. As you were looking to drive sustainable change, keep in mind the benefits of the change must be greater than the effort required. It was a key lesson that bar learned as an engineer early in her career. And three, when your people’s hearts and minds Barra has pointed to a critical experience earlier in her career, working for a leader that really focused on developing genuine bond with their team on a couple of levels.

Scott Luton (11:57):

Bar has stated, this is key to empowering your team and surpassing expectations. What lies ahead for Mary Barra and general motors? The big part of the path forward is the ramp up and development of electric vehicles in November, 2020 GM announced the hiring of 3000 employees across the fields of engineering design and it with a key objective in mind, as stated by Ken Morris with GM quote, we’re accelerating toward our Evie future. This will help us move faster. In quote, the company had previously announced a goal to develop 20 electric models by 2023. Additionally, Mary Barra sees an opportunity to reduce the 40,000 annual deaths per year that occur in traffic accidents in the U S data points to 90% of these accidents are due to human error. Bar sees a broader application of autonomous driving, which can address and cut into these losses significantly beyond electric cars and autonomous driving technology bar sees GM and its workforce striving to make riding cars safer and making it cleaner for the environment.

Scott Luton (13:10):

Hey, stay tuned as we’ll be watching for what’s next for Mary Barra and general motors and one other connected story on this episode of this week in business history, amongst other roles, Mary Barra serves on the board of directors for the Walt Disney company. So on a related note on December 21st, 1937, Walt Disney’s first color and sound feature length, animated film, snow white, and the seven dwarfs had its world premiere and Hollywood’s golden age movie palace, the Carthay circle theater in Los Angeles. Snow white is generally considered Walt Disney’s most significant achievement. Although he had been in business since 1923, he had primarily produced short cartoons, such as Mickey mouse and the three little pigs visionary. Walt Disney, since the early 1930s had wanted to expand his repertoire from short subjects to feature length animations. He later wrote that snow white and the seven dwarfs was an inevitable and necessary step forward in order to advance the studio short subjects, even successful ones like three little pigs still could not provide the studio with a significant profit.

Scott Luton (14:25):

He was anxious for an opportunity to work in an expanded format that would allow for more elaborate character development and more complex plot ideas. Then one day in 1934, Walt Disney gathered his animators and the studio soundstage where he told them the story acting out the scenes and characters himself. Although the animators were impressed with Walt’s idea, they were skeptical that a full length animated film could sustain the audience’s attention. There were other naysayers in Hollywood and even his wife tried to discourage him from the project Disney, even mortgaged his house to meet the initial 250,000 budget. The budget would later balloon to $1.5 million. The film’s premiere was wildly received even by the skeptics. It received a standing ovation and even had some theater goers crying. It grossed more money than any other film up until that time. And for Tom afterward for his achievement in the film, Walt Disney received a full-size Oscar statuette alongside seven miniature ones presented to him by Shirley temple.

Scott Luton (15:36):

The film was deemed a significant screen innovation, which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field. It was also nominated for best music score with such a memorable tunes, such as whistle while you work hi-ho. And someday my Prince will come the overall success and impact of snow white and the seven dwarfs would pave the way in the immediate years that followed it’s released for films, such as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, and of course, many others. And the film is a big part of the immense Walt Disney legacy. Well that just about wraps up this edition of this week in business history. Those were some of the stories that stood out to us, but what do you think find us on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and share your comments there. We’re here to listen very special. Thanks to our recent guest, host Gary, a Smith and to Deb [inaudible] who has provided excellent research for the series on that note, thanks to you, our listener for tuning in to the show each week who wish you the happiest of how holiday seasons Merry Christmas and happy new year, be sure to check out a wide variety of industry thought and friendly reminder.

Scott Luton (16:57):

You can of course find this week in business history, wherever you get your podcasts from and be sure to tell us what you think we’d love to earn your review on behalf of the entire team here at this week in business history and supply chain. Now this is Scott Luton wishing all of our listeners, nothing but the best. Hey, do good give forward and be the change as needed. And on that note, we’ll see next time here on this week in business history. Thanks for budding.

Scott W. Luton is the founder & CEO of Supply Chain Now. He has worked extensively in the end-to-end Supply Chain industry for more than 15 years, appearing in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Dice and Quality Progress Magazine. Scott was named a 2019 Pro to Know in Supply Chain by Supply & Demand Executive and a 2019 “Top 15 Supply Chain & Logistics Experts to Follow” by RateLinx. He founded the 2019 Atlanta Supply Chain Awards and also served on the 2018 Georgia Logistics Summit Executive Committee. He is a certified Lean Six Sigma Green Belt and holds the APICS Certified Supply Chain Professional (CSCP) credential. A Veteran of the United States Air Force, Scott volunteers on the Business Pillar for VETLANTA and has served on the boards for APICS Atlanta and the Georgia Manufacturing Alliance. Follow Scott Luton on Twitter at @ScottWLuton and learn more about Supply Chain Now here:


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