At Wharton, GM CEO Mary Barra discusses self-driving cars and the MeToo era

GM CEO Mary Barra spoke at the Wharton People Analytics Conference 2018 in center city on Friday, March 23, 2018 (Credit; Erin Arvedlund)

General Motors CEO Mary Barra is a GM lifer who started at the company as a co-op student at 18 and decades later rose to be boss.

Immediately upon becoming CEO, the engineer by training changed the dress code from a thick manual of rules to two words: “Dress appropriately.”

She sat for a Q&A with Wharton School professor Adam Grant at the Wharton People Analytics Conference 2018 on Friday at the Bellevue Hotel.

Before hundreds of professors and M.B.A. students, the conversation ranged from GM’s research and development efforts to self-driving cars, or “autonomous vehicles” in Detroit-speak, to electric models such as GM’s Chevrolet Volt and Bolt, which beat Elon Musk’s Tesla to market.

She spoke about how she handled the ignition scandal and the ensuing crisis, as well as how she sees the #MeToo movement’s affecting GM and the American car industry, which, like Silicon Valley, has long been dominated by male engineers.

Barra also talked about some of the worst career advice she ever received, and trusting your gut when it comes to CEOs and decision-making. Here’s an edited version of the Q&A.

On her beginnings and many roles at GM:

“I got to rotate in as an engineer. I was executive assistant to the chair and vice chair, and that exposed me to the whole operation,” she said. She also worked as a plant manager, in human resources, and communications before rising to chief executive.

The story behind streamlining the company, starting with the dress code change for 180,000 employees:

“We were coming out of the restructuring” after the 2008 financial crisis. Then-CEO Fritz Henderson “was our leader, and it was an opportunity to define the culture. We brainstormed. The funny thing was, human resources argued with me, they said, ‘We’ll put something else in the manual, like no T-shirts with sayings.’ It was my first hurdle. I said, ‘It’s just two words. That’s all we want.’

“A manager then wrote me a scathing email, and I called him and I asked him why he didn’t agree” with the new dress code. “That department had to deal with government officials, so he was worried the team would show up in jeans. So he called me back and said … the team brainstormed, and they’ll keep dress pants on hand. Problem solved. The big ‘aha’ was, managers have to be empowered. If they own it, it helps develop them. It was eye-opening. Small little things change the culture.”

Worst career advice she ever received:

“I was expecting my first child, who’s going to be 21 in a few weeks. I was told I shouldn’t work once my child was born.”

Barra’s vision for the company includes using data to bring GM vehicles to zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion.

“We lose 40,000 lives a year due to traffic accidents; 90 percent of them have a human error component” in the United States. “Autonomous driving can dramatically reduce those incidents.

“Electric vehicles can help get you to zero emissions,” she said. “We believe in climate change, too, and congestion leads to road rage. I really like to drive, but not when I’m really busy and I could be doing something else. Our new Corvette is rolling off the line, so I can’t wait. But sometimes autonomous vehicles would be better for me.”

On self-driving technology and GM’s acquisition of Cruise, the self-driving car startup, which has grown to 600 people from 40:

“As a team, we went to Silicon Valley and talked to a lot of companies, coupled with what we’d been doing in R&D. We started to believe it could happen much faster.  We have a venture group in Silicon Valley and Detroit that looks globally for startups and we invest in them. [With] Cruise, we’d had a relationship with them early on; just at the time we wanted to do autonomous … they were coming to the same conclusion. In order for the technology to work well, it had to be deeply integrated. Very quickly we went through the process to acquire them. Can we grow this or acquire it? And how do we integrate it? We spent a lot of time on the integration piece. It married with all the work we’re doing.”

GM’s Chevy Volt beat Tesla to the electric car debut. About electric cars and the OnStar data that GM has been collecting to analyze drivers:

“We’re in the infancy of leveraging the power of the data we’re collecting. We can use it to make better decisions in the company, create value for the consumer. One thing we’ve learned … on electric vehicles. You get a lot of feedback on whether you’re driving as efficiently as possible. With Chevy Volt, it’s kind of like gamification.

“We have a new application through OnStar where we can … provide information or a discount on gas, or a coupon, or pre-order your favorite Starbucks coffee. How do we connect you in a nondistracting way? We’re just scratching the surface.”

On crisis management and how she handled the GM ignition switch scandal:

“Immediately we formed a small team, and we met every day, sometimes for two hours, sometimes for 20 minutes. When you’re in a crisis, it’s not like you have perfect information on day one. There was a lot to unfold.

“We defined guiding principles: do everything possible for the customer, be transparent, and make sure this never happens again. That guided us. It was an opportunity in a tragic situation. The issues that caused this crisis in 2014 were engineered and designed in the early 2000s, when you look at the life of the vehicle.

“Follow your gut. Early on, you get advice from everyone. And it conflicts. I spent sleepless nights thinking, ‘This doesn’t feel right.’ We’re going to say, ‘We’re sorry, we’re going to do an independent investigation, we’re going to release the independent investigation.’ If you have values, you keep going back to that.

“Two things I learned: I’m much more impatient. If there’s a problem, we’ve got to fix it. And we’re going to do the right thing even when it’s hard. It’s easy to live your values when everything’s going well.

In November 2017, Grant said, “I got an email that ‘Mary Barra wants to speak with you.’ The call was about making sure senior people are mentoring everyone – men mentoring women, white leaders mentoring. You were hearing from men that they were afraid to mentor women at GM in the #MeToo era.”

“I remember you suggested group mentoring is very important. It gave me the courage to go to my top leaders and talk about it without having all the answers. What are we going to do? Someone said, ‘Here’s what I do.’ We introduced group mentoring. I found just by putting a difficult topic out on the table, it caused everyone to be aware of it and that they’re not alone. It was really beneficial.”

How the new mentoring has worked at GM:

“People have done it in very different ways. Sometimes it’s a bigger group. Other times it’s one on three people. Having more people in the room and customizing it. The idea has permeated in many different ways.

“Putting it out there, making it visible. Letting people talk about it. I got a great email from a young woman who said. ‘I want to share about my boss Pete, who mentored me.’ Then I sent him a note. It got a lot of recognition across the company. There’s no perfect solution.

“I’ve had many mentors in my 38-year career; without the mentors and dedication to diversity, I wouldn’t sit as CEO of General Motors today. Many [of my mentors] were men. As important as the #MeToo movement is, people finally feel what’s happening is not acceptable – and people will listen and believe and take action — but you don’t want to have this other negative outcome. But just having people talk about it has taken us to a better place.”