Mary Barra's rise from engineering intern to CEO of the world's second largest automaker wasn't meteoric, but it was steady. And whether she was working as an assembly plant manager, head of Human Resources, or leading global product development, she says she never asked for different jobs, or a raise. So how did she do it?
I was on the elliptical machine at the club a couple of weeks ago when I saw the first televised interview with Barra after her latest promotion to GM CEO.
I couldn't hear it, but I could read the subtitles, and she basically said the secret to her success is she performed in every job like she was going to do it for the rest of her life.
And she felt that if she demonstrated ownership, delivered results, had high integrity and believed in the power of teamwork, the raises and promotions would take care of themselves.
More recently, just this week in fact, Barra gave this great interview to Patricia Sellers at Fortune Magazine. Some of what Barra said reprised what she said earlier in the network TV interview(s) I saw.
But the portion of the Fortune interview that really intrigued me was when Barra spoke specifically of her stint as as Vice President of Global Human Resources, a position she held from 2009 to 2011.
"When I was asked to lead human resources as the company was coming out of the bankruptcy, we were going to work to change the view of the company both inside and outside."
Think about this. Her entire career up to that point had been spent in operations and engineering. And now she was leading the HR department at a company with 212,000 employees doing business in 157 countries. Oh yeah, one more thing, General Motors was just emerging from Chapter 11 reorganization at the time. Talk about learning on the job.
"When I was asked to lead human resources as the company was coming out of the bankruptcy, we were going to work to change the view of the company both inside and outside," Barra said in the CNN, Fortune & Money piece. "I learned a lot in that role. I was involved with the senior staff on a lot of strategic issues, and I think that enabled me to transition into global product development."
One of the things Barra did on the HR job was cull the 10-page dress code handbook down to two words: Dress appropriately. It certainly wouldn't be her crowning achievement, but it does speak to her philosophy of streamlining and simplifying things.
"I go in, ask a lot of questions, demonstrate the desire to learn, and really understand the key areas of the business.
Barra said her stint gave her a lot of respect for human resources. In the Fortune interview, she was asked by Sellers how she succeeded in a role she didn't have any real background in.
"I go in, ask a lot of questions, demonstrate the desire to learn, and really understand the key areas of the business. Then I think of it like an onion. You learn the first layer, and then you peel back and you peel back. And over not that long a period of time, you can have a very good grasp of the organization. The other advice I give is: Have the right team. If you need to make changes, make those changes."
Not every female CEO has mirrored Barra's career tactics of working hard and letting the results speak for themselves.
"For a lot of women, they think the myth is true, that if they just do a good job and work hard, they'll get recognized."
Maggie Wilderotter, CEO of Frontier Communications, advises women in this Wall Street Journal piece to speak up and toot their own horn when they hit goals. "For a lot of women, they think the myth is true, that if they just do a good job and work hard, they'll get recognized. That's not the case."
And perhaps most famously, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, said in her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead women in the workplace need to be more aggressive about taking the hammer to the glass ceiling.
"Until women are as ambitious as men, they're not going to achieve as much as men," she says. "We're not going to close the achievement gap until we close the ambition gap."
Wall Street isn't likely looking much at the issue of gender today as they analyze GM's stock price. But they might be thinking more than a little about achievement.
Today GM reported a 13% decrease in its fourth-quarter profit as success in North America and China failed to offset declines in other international markets.
The honeymoon might already be over for the new chief executive, as she quickly encounters a few speed bumps along the way to her goal of restoring General Motors as "the most valuable automotive company in the world." She certainly has lots of varied experiences to draw from in her quest though. And one thing's for sure. She certainly won't be doing this job for the rest of her life, regardless of her performance.