Laura Colby is a senior reporter at Bloomberg News, where she covers women in the global economy and diversity in business. She is the author of Road to Power: How GM’s Mary Barra Shattered the Glass Ceiling, which explores the rise of the first female CEO of a major automotive company.
Here, we ask Laura a few questions about her interest in writing a book about Barra, one of the few women who is a CEO at a S&P 500 company.
1. What inspired you to write Road to Power? And what got you particularly interested in Mary Barra?
I wrote an article with my Bloomberg colleagues about her promotion to CEO on the day it was announced in December 2013. I was struck by the fact that Barra was not just an experienced manager who had worked her way up through the ranks; she was an engineer. She was one of those rare women holding a STEM degree, which we’re often told is the key to career success.
That was interesting to me personally, too, because I’m in the same generation as Barra, and started my own college career as an engineering major before switching to journalism.
2 In your book, you discuss how Barra’s position as CEO of GM is “arguably the most important corporate role a woman has ever held.” Can you say more about why?
GM was founded more than a century ago and was once considered a proxy for the US economy. GM’s no longer as large or dominant in the United States as it once was, and Barra has to transform the automaker so that it survives another century or more. She’s adapting to new ways of looking at transportation, from ride sharing to driverless cars, and positioning the company to compete with new rivals like Google and Uber. The survival of an American icon, and thousands of jobs, depends on her.
3. What challenges to success has Barra faced throughout her career? How has she been able to break through those challenges and shatter the glass ceiling?
Probably the biggest challenge was the one that landed in her lap right after she took the CEO job: a faulty switch in some GM cars that caused numerous driver deaths. Barra commissioned an independent study, fired some people, and made a public apology. Those moves put her employees on notice that it wasn’t going to be business as usual any longer. I think her boldness and directness there—she took responsibility and vowed to fix the problem—was successful and really earned her the respect of employees, customers, and investors.
4. How did Barra’s willingness to take on diverse assignments helped steer her career trajectory? What can we learn from her professional journey?
Though she started as an electrical engineer working in auto plants, Barra took on roles such as head of internal communications and human resources chief throughout her career. By taking such “stretch” assignments, she gained perspective of how the company fits together. She was able to leverage those insights, and her connections with leaders across the company, as she moved up the ladder.
5. How did the company help Barra succeed in her career?
She worked closely with mentors to plan her career goals. She was noticed as a high-potential employee early on, and sent to Stanford to earn an MBA. She had very senior mentors who ensured that she got experience sitting in on top management and board meetings at a young age. And she also participated in a global corporate management training program, where she made connections with her peers across the company.
6. Barra is only one of two women sitting on Trump’s CEO advisory panel. Any thoughts to share about her participation and what it means for women in leadership?
Throughout her career, Barra has excelled in male-dominated environments. She’s also done very well with leaders who were seen as difficult people—she managed to disagree with them without upsetting the apple cart. She has an opportunity now to be that same kind of smart, sensible adviser, and some early news reports showed that the President has reacted well to her.
7. How is she uniquely qualified to make an impact there?
Barra, like many successful women, doesn’t like being labeled a “female CEO,” and that’s understandable. She is a CEO, and has earned her position. But she could use her perch close to power to lobby—in her own low-key way—for the administration to recognize the importance of women in business and to take steps that would make a career climb easier for the next generation.
8. What do you see as the specific challenges and opportunities facing women within the new administration?
Women’s issues and women’s advancement are not at the top of the list of priorities for this government. There are fewer women in this cabinet than the last, and far fewer than there would have been had Hillary Clinton won—she had made promises about aiming for parity in her cabinet.
I’m hopeful we’ll at last get national paid leave for parents; the United States is the only developed country that doesn’t have it. The programs floated so far are bare bones, and will still leave us far behind Europe and other trading partners.
9. How do you see corporate America stepping up to prioritize diversity and inclusion?
Where this government has withdrawn or announced plans to dismantle policies set by the previous administration, corporate America is stepping in to ensure that while employees are at work, they will be protected. The reason is simple: companies want to hire the best talent they can, to draw from the widest pool possible. People don’t want to work for companies where they feel they won’t be treated fairly, and the companies that take a stand on this are benefitting. Diversity is especially important to Millennials, the largest and probably most sought-after demographic.
10. What overall message do you hope readers take away from your book?
That women can succeed, even where they are in a distinct minority, if they have the dedication and skills and are working somewhere that recognizes that and has created a structure to support and promote them. GM did that very quietly for many years, starting in the 1970s. Eventually, that system produced Mary Barra. I hope more companies will adopt similar systems to advance women, and make sure that their employees and competitors know about it. Diversity is a competitive advantage.
Learn more about Road to Power: How GM’s Mary Barra Shattered the Glass Ceiling.