EMBA student Robert Chen, WG’19, an executive coach at Exec|Comm in New York City, highlights takeaways about leadership from Mary Barra, CEO of GM.
Listen to Mary Barra on the Women@Work show, hosted by Laura Zarrow and Adam Grant

While students in Wharton’s MBA Program for Executives are busy with full-time jobs and school, we still have opportunities to participate in events across both campuses. A recent example is Wharton’s annual People Analytics Conference.

At this year’s conference, Prof. Adam Grant hosted the keynote discussion with Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, about people management. In her 38 years at GM, Barra has been an executive assistant, plant manager, product developer, and HR leader, among other roles before she became CEO.

During their conversation, she highlighted several principles and tips that have led to her success.

1. Ask for feedback from your staff.

Barra maintained that this is one of the most important things leaders can do. She recommended asking, “Did you get what you needed from this meeting?” Another question Barra suggested asking consistently is, “What’s your opinion?” She explained that leaders can continue to improve if they collect accurate information about the current reality. At the same time, they should discern which feedback is worth taking action on.

2. Meet to discuss, not to disseminate information.

A common frustration in meetings is when the presenter reads a presentation, observed Barra. She strongly believes that pre-reading should be sent before meetings to maximize discussion during the meeting. This sounds like common sense, but if you observe your own meetings, you’ll likely be surprised at how much time is spent on information sharing rather than discussion.

3. Simplify your message.

When leading an organization, especially one with 181,000 employees, you need to have a clear and simple message. Without one, the front line will not get or understand the message. GM uses “zero crashes, zero emissions” to help all employees understand the focus of the organization. The company leverages the power of storytelling to ensure that the message sticks.

4. Remember to effect change: Benefits > Effort

Being an engineer, Mary said that she uses the formula that benefits must be greater than effort if you want to create sustainable change. It’s simple to understand, but not always easy to do.

5. Know your business.

To be an effective leader, you need to understand every aspect of your business, so you can see how the different parts connect. Barra has had the benefit of taking on many different roles at GM. If you’ve mainly worked in one function, consider trying out another role to expand the breadth of your experience and expertise.

6. Win both hearts and minds.

Early on in Barra’s career, her mentor ingrained in her the importance of understanding and appealing to both the intellectual and emotional side of her team. In addition to logical reasoning, you need to be attuned to what people care about – their fears and aspirations.

7. Align on values.

Whether you’re acquiring a company or hiring a new person for your team, you want to spend time to discern whether your values match. If there is a mismatch, there is a good chance that things will not work out. The only way to align on values is through dialogue. Barra suggested asking, “What values are important to you? Why did you choose these values?” and then just listen.

8. Lead culture with behaviors.

Behaviors, not inspiring slogans, determine the culture of an organization, she said. Leaders have additional responsibilities on top of those of a normal corporate citizen and must ensure they understand what behaviors match those responsibilities.

Read Robert’s story about alumni speaker Alex Gorsky, WG’96, CEO of Johnson & Johnson.

Posted: April 9, 2018

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