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Did Mary Barra’s Inclusive Leadership Style Propel Her to The Top?

Jan. 22, 2014
Anecdotal evidence provides a window into how Mary Barra has used inclusive leadership to garner employee advocates and improve business operations.

This month, Mary Barra succeeded Dan Akerson as General Motor’s newest Chief Executive Officer. Barra, who rose through the ranks, is the highest-ranking female executive in the auto industry.

Her 33-year career at GM (IW 500/5) spanned multiple departments and jobs – from executive assistant to communications and human resources, and, prior to her CEO appointment, Barra was Executive Vice President in Global Product Development and Global Purchasing & Supply Chain.

For those who know Barra’s leadership style and work ethic, it came as no surprise when the board unanimously approved her as the chief executive officer. Simply put, she embodies the traits and behaviors of an inclusive leader. Anecdotal evidence provides a window into how Mary Barra has used inclusive leadership to garner employee advocates and improve business operations.


Quoted in Washington Post, a fellow colleague and GM executive notes her “consensus approach.”  In fact, she’s been known to conduct town hall meetings to seek input on projects. 

But she knows when to step in and make the final decision. “At the end of the day, the decision has to be made. If we don’t have complete unanimity, I have no qualms about making it,” Barra said to the Los Angeles Times. “I want tension in a constructive way to make sure we evaluate things from every angle.”

Openness to a Wide Range Input

According to several sources, Barra has always created an inclusive environment where employees feel they can voice their opinions. Once she receives diverse input, she gauges the efficacy of all ideas and provides feedback. Co-workers and mentors have praised Barra’s listening skills and her approachability. 

Predisposition to Innovation

Never-done-before in GM history, Barra led the team that in under a year made enhancements to the Chevrolet Malibu to give the flopped 2012 version a facelift, which improved sales.

In Barra’s days during the auto crisis, she increased efficiency through product innovation and created more vehicles that shared the same parts. She also got GM’s purchasing and product development departments to work together, which they had previously never done.

Embracing Technology to Fuel Innovation

She told Stanford Alumni magazine that her “job is to keep up with the technology advancement so that consumers are able to choose. So if we as a company have the right technology that allows us to deliver fuel economy, yet still offer a range of size and products to meet people's needs and wants, that's how we win."

Through her inclusive style, Barra has produced highly effective work teams that have helped enhance the success of one of the largest auto manufactures in the world.

Her example should be a signal to other business leaders. Becoming an inclusive leader is no longer an option to consider; it’s a must-do for the future success of any company. 

Not only will this leadership style mobilize employees to increase engagement, feel more connected to the organization as well as generate new innovative ideas but it has proven to be a significant catalyst in connecting to new and diverse growth markets.

Shirley Engelmeier, CEO of InclusionINC, is the author of “Inclusion: The New Competitive Business Advantage” as well as her newest book “Becoming an Inclusive Leader.” Engelmeier has advised Fortune 500 companies on creating inclusive, high performance leaders and organizations for over twenty years.

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