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Trial by fire has made GM's CEO more impatient with pace of change

General Motors CEO Mary Barra.
Dave Pinter

Two weeks after Mary Barra took charge of General Motors, she faced a sudden challenge that could have tested even a seasoned CEO.

The automaker was forced to admit it had delayed a recall of 2.6 million Cobalts and other small cars for 10 years, leading to dozens of deaths that might not have happened had the recall been timely.

Soon, Barra was called before several congressional committees, where she endured sometimes merciless questioning about the scandal. 

She led an overhaul of GM's recall processes, focusing on tearing down communication silos that prevented the defect from reaching the attention of top executives. That, plus all the usual fundamentals of running one of the biggest automakers in the world.

Barra held a rare media roundtable at GM headquarters in Detroit to talk about her first year. 

She says she never felt ambushed, but getting through the trial by fire did change her leadership style.

"Maybe I would have accepted longer timelines to accomplish something," she says. "Well, no more."

Barra says GM's culture is changing.  A new method of performance review holds employees accountable for meeting the goals they set, and the emphasis on accountability includes her senior management team.

"We've talked about the behaviors that we need to change, and make sure we're owning each other's problems, and I see great examples of that," she says.

Barra says she is "cautiously optimistic" about 2015. GM forecasts U.S. auto sales of 16.5 to 17 million. 

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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