When it comes to General Motors, you might say that CEO Mary Barra is ride or die.
At 18, she started working for GM as a way to help pay for her college tuition. Her gig, inspecting hoods and fender panels of the Pontiac Grand Prix, turned out to be the first step in a lifelong career with the manufacturer, culminating in Barra’s appointment as chief executive in 2014. This made her the first woman to run one of the “Big Three” automakers (GM, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler) in the US.
As CEO, Barra has faced plenty of challenges. Shortly after she took the job, the company was rocked by a global scandal over a defective ignition switch that led to at least 124 deaths, eventually forcing the company to recall 2.6 million cars. Barra refused to shirk the company’s responsibility, conducting an internal probe that resulted in the firing of 15 employees and instating new policies that aimed to prompt workers to flag problems, which permanently altered the company culture.
“I never want to put this behind us,” she told employees. “I want to put this painful experience permanently in our collective memories.” In the years since, Barra has staked her reputation on transparency while pushing to modernize GM with electric and self-driving cars.
In an interview with Quartz, Barra shares her thoughts on the importance of seeking out new opportunities and the myth about working moms that she detests.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
That an almost supercentenarian company can change the world.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
I have a fundamental belief that everyone wants to contribute and do a good job.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work, what would it be?
I’d urge women not to cut off their career branches too early. Don’t step away from your career based on what “might” happen.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
When asked for advice on how to get ahead, Eleanor Roosevelt was fond of saying, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” If I could offer some advice to my younger self, this idea of embracing new and different opportunities would be a good place to start.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
I am always action-oriented because there’s always a way to move forward.
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
I spend the time to get to know them, their families, and what’s important to them.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I ever received came from my parents, who encouraged me to work hard and pursue my early love of math.
8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work…
Stop making assumptions.
The mountain I’m willing to die on… is anything that’s right for my family.
I wish people would stop telling me… that you can’t have a successful career and be a successful parent.
Everyone should own… a dog.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.