Yesterday I attended the Catalyst Awards conference – Catalyst is a New York-based nonprofit and longtime advocate for women in business. The main event of the day was a lunchtime conversation between Catalyst CEO Deborah Gillis and General Motors CEO Mary Barra.
Barra got a lot of attention when she became CEO of GM just over a year ago. She was the first woman to be appointed CEO of a global auto company. She also took over GM just before the company finally faced up to a problem with the ignition switch on some of its cars – a problem that meant the airbags didn’t deploy properly and that caused at least 13 deaths. GM issued a big recall just weeks after Barra took over. She testified before Congress about the issue later in the year.
Barra was less open than Hewlett Packard CEO Ursula Burns, who was in the same chair at the event two years ago, but then she’s had a different kind of life than Burns, and different experiences. She seems to be someone who doesn’t want to focus on herself too much, and would rather share credit for her successes with other people than claim them as her own.
At one point in the conversation she pointed out something women need to keep hearing, which is not to balk when they’re presented with a challenging opportunity, one they would never have considered themselves.
She said some of the best opportunities in her career were when someone asked her to do something and her response was, “You want me to do what?” Roles that weren’t on her radar helped grow her career. I’ve never forgotten an early interview I did with McKinsey partner Joanna Barsh where this topic of fear came up. Barsh said she spent a lot of time when she was younger fleeing from challenges rather than saying ‘yes’, because she was afraid she wasn’t up to the job. It took her years to realize you grow professionally – and in the eyes of your colleagues – when you take on tricky jobs.
On a related note, when an audience member asked Barra to talk about what NOT to do in one’s career, she said, “Don’t put yourself in a box.” She saw a career as a tree with many branches going in different directions. “Don’t start to lop off the branches of the tree before you get there,” she said.
What struck me strongly about Barra was how often she shared the credit for her work with others. Several times she said things like “with the help of the HR team” or “I have a great team and I encourage debate and collaboration.”
I’ve read about this stereotypically female leadership trait but this is the first time I’ve truly noticed it in action. And as my neighbor at the event pointed out, Barra also phrased things in a different way than most men. Instead of an “I did this” storyline she often said things like, “I was given the opportunity to…” or “People took smart risks in putting me in different positions.” It may seem like a small thing, but when you really listen to and study her language it is quite different from what you would normally hear from a man with that much power.
Some of you may have read about a study last year saying female CEOs were more likely to be forced out than male ones – especially when they are brought in from the outside to turn around a company. Barra may have been appointed to turn GM around, but she is a GM insider. She’s still at the start of her journey to change the culture. I wish her luck.