Not in my Lifetime: Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors

Mary Barra, CEO General Motors.  Image source:  GM website
Mary Barra, CEO General Motors. Image source: GM website

Today we had several topics under consideration: the significant portion of foreign IPOs, the dilution of biotech companies in IPOs, and more.  We try not to address topics with a ‘female’ bent and are very pragmatic.  We’re not interested in ideological discussions, or focusing on the ‘woulda, shoulda’s.’

But, never in a hundred years did we expect to see a woman at the helm of General Motors.  And, certainly not in our lifetimes.  Nothing, nowhere, (except potentially investment banking and “alternative investments”) is there more testosterone than the auto business.  Yes, there has been the occasional token woman heading up the marketing department, and ads featuring “female” engineers.  Tokens.  Don’t get me wrong.  You have to start somewhere.  And tokens are better than zero.

Women have become CEO’s in Fortune 500 companies. Most, but not all, have a consumer slant, or are in Silicon Valley.  Data tells us that companies that have a more diverse leadership tend to be more profitable, and have better metrics.  It does make sense that the more ideas you get on the table, the better the solutions.  Different backgrounds among a leadership team should yield a more diverse set of options.

One of the rotations that Mary Barra (a General Motors Institute and Stanford GSB alum) took in her path through GM was HR. HR has always been considered to be a Pink Ghetto, but maybe not anymore.  HR has become infested with legal issues and concerns, and handles some of a corporation’s major expenses:  its employees, hiring, and benefit plans.  One of my HBS classmates went kicking and screaming to head up HR after heading up services in a large technology company.  The CEO first told her nicely, and then told her.  In fact. Mary Barra made her tour through HR, and on her way into the CEO suite..

And guess what folks?  Women are just as biased as men, against women.  I catch myself all the time.  When that happens, I try to imagine that specific woman as a man, with the same body and facial features.  Doing so, I find those feelings of bias melting away.

And then you ask, what about Carly Fiorina and Ginny Rometty?  Carly Fiorina was a rotten CEO, who focused on the numbers and not on the business.  Yes, women have to be allowed to fail also.  Rometty heads up IBM, which is facing some huge issues around growth.

One of the difficult things for women is that they have to succeed in a different fashion than men.  They have to be nice, and negotiate differently.  Imitating behaviors of the leadership of your company could booby trap you rather than help you succeed.  So much for some aspects of mentoring.

Sheryl Sandberg suggests citing that someone more senior encouraged the negotiation, or using industry standards.  This specific chapter in Lean In was my “Ah ha” moment.  It explained to me the dynamics of my prior job around the leadership team and how I fit in. There was no diversity, except for me.  I may have the wrong impression, but since my departure over a decade ago, the firm does not appear to have made strides in that particular area.  But that happens when an industry hits major head winds, which the financial industry continues to experience.

I’ll always remember my boss saying you had to be likeable to win business.  That was one of the reasons that Tim McMahon at Adams Harkness got business.  Ben Howe, then at Cowen & Company, was a powerful new business machine, and impossible to compete against.   In fact, I was reminded by a business school classmate that in her experience, companies in which the CEO (male) were ‘nice’ were much  better places to work, and that the attribute was a powerful edge when competing for business.

I will admit to being too tough.  When I read the book “The Power of Nice” by Ronald Shapiro and Mark Jankowski with James Dale, I tested some of their techniques.  To my shock, “nice” does work.  But, if you’ve been raised in a tough environment, and taught to be as tough as the guys, it’s really, really hard to modify your behavior.

But, back to GM.  I’m rooting for Mary Barra.  I’ve never, ever owned a GM product, and would like to find an American car in which I could have confidence.  The WSJ tells the story of how Barra made the marketing people, for the first time, visit showrooms and look at how the product is presented, and how people buy cars.  This shouldn’t be revolutionary.  Ford has come a long ways, and is good in the electronic features, and ergonomics, but less so on performance.  Where is the gas mileage?

And what about Tesla Motors, which builds my dream car.  Whoops.  Nada.   No diversity whatsoever. Not in the management team and not on the board of directors.  Which gives me pause.

When a business school classmate and I look at team photos of venture capital firms, we remark “How collegiate.”  It’s our code for “Women need not apply.”

When I left Needham, I chose to start my own firm rather than look for a job.  I figured I had both sex and age working against me, and I was better off on my own.  Maybe, maybe not.  I wish I had thought about industry growth.  Sheryl Sandberg got one very good piece of advice from Eric Schmidt when she was considering the Google position.  “Go where the growth is.”  He’s right.

Company growth rate should be a job seeker’s number one consideration. If I could give any advice to anyone looking for a job, that would be it.  Certainly, when I was at Needham, the wind was at our backs, and we had tremendous growth and opportunity for many years.

Which brings me around to investment banking and alternative investment firms [venture capital, LBO, real estate, oil and gas partnerships], the next barrier waiting to be broken.  Though Ken Chenault is heading up American Express, a major financial institution.   A person of color is even more of a rarity than a woman at the helm.   The financial industry is being disrupted everywhere.  Regulations and expenses are increasing exponentially.  United States leadership is being challenged by firms, and countries, around the globe.

This issue of diversity could be crucial to our ability to dig the United States out of its current economic malaise.  We need whole new ways of doing things: more and different laws in some places, and many fewer in others.  We are individually, and as a country, attempting to adapt to some of the fastest change any civilization has ever seen.

Enough for proselytizing.  Now, lets go out and make some money.

All the best,

Margaret Johns

Founder & Chairman

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We make no claim to being comprehensive in our review, as the contents are companies and topics we, ourselves, find of interest.

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