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From MBA To CEO: Five Tips From General Motor's First Female Chief

General Motors chief executive Mary Barra, who earned an MBA at Stanford GSB, has five management tips based on running the world's third largest carmaker by sales.

By  Seb Murray

Wed Feb 4 2015

Mary Barra, chief executive of General Motors, the world’s third largest automaker by sales, is perhaps the most successful female MBA graduate of her time.

The General Motors chief has presided over the tail end of a remarkable turnaround at the American carmaker, following its government-managed bankruptcy in 2009. She has sought to invest in developing luxury lines, and made an ambitious push into the electric vehicles market at last month’s Detroit auto show.

Mary took the reins of GM, known for its Cadillac and Chevrolet brands, in January 2014. She has risen through the ranks at the US-based company, after joining in 1980 as a university co-op student.

An MBA at Stanford GSB in California allowed her to move into a senior position within GM’s operations engineering services upon graduation, in 1990.

The number of MBA graduates leading the world’s largest listed companies has nudged upwards 2% to 31% in a year.

The career takeaway for Mary is that, whether you spend your career working for one company or 20, you need to hone your ability to start strong in each new position you hold.

In a blog post reflecting on her first 90 days as chief executive, the MBA graduate outlined five tips she has developed while working for a company with 219,000 employees, and which produced $156 billion in annual revenue.

Placing The Customer First

Whether you work in accounting, engineering or sales, and whether you’re straight out of school or an EVP, focusing on the customer will help you to drive better performance, Mary said.

“Their needs should inform every decision you make. If the voice of the customer isn't already reflected in your new position, find ways in your first 90 days – and every day after that – to ensure that it is,” she said.

Team Player

“The first 90 days is your best opportunity to earn the respect and trust of the people with whom you work,” Mary said.

You should be open, seek solutions, and listen more than you talk, she said. “When you value what others say, they start to open up, and that flow of ideas leads to better results.”

Strengthen Your Team

As a leader, you must ensure you have the right people on your team, she said. “Expect and demand an all-in commitment from everyone. If you don’t have the right people, you’re not doing your job – because you’re too busy doing their work.”

If you have an employee whose unhappiness is holding back the team, help him find happiness somewhere else, she added, ruthlessly.

Personal Responsibility

“If you inherit a problem with your new job, don’t dismiss it as the last person’s legacy,” Mary said.

You should never hide behind your newbie status or use it as an excuse to put off what needs to be done, she said. “Own the problem, develop a plan to fix it, and address it head on. Your team’s reputation depends not just on what you do right, but what you do if something goes wrong.”


Success will largely be determined on how well you adapt to meet the changing needs of the customer, Mary said.

“Adaptation really comes down to one thing: leadership. And a big part of leadership is being able to look over the horizon and anticipate the changes to come,” she added.