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Mary Barra, in third year at GM helm, is a quiet but effective CEO

Steve Fecht
General Motors
GM CEO Mary Barra at an employee town hall

January 15th will be Mary Barra's three-year anniversary as CEO of General Motors.  The world's first (and only) female top executive of a major automaker, her transition was a trial by fire.

Barra became CEO of one of the world's largest automakers the week GM revealed it had delayed -- for ten years -- a recall of millions of small cars with faulty ignition switches. 

The scandal cost GM dearly, and Barra took the brunt of the political repercussions, appearing in the hot seat before U.S. House and U.S. Senate committees in the summer of 2014.

Other, very large recalls followed, many of them for similar ignition switch problems with other GM vehicles.

But the company Barra is leading appears to be on a much better trajectory today.   GM became the first automaker to launch a long-range electric car for the mass market, the Chevy Bolt.  

Barra announced last week that GM will test self-driving Bolts on the streets of metro Detroit in 2017.  As usual, her remarks were brief; her press conference afterwards with reporters even briefer.

Barra is no publicity seeker.  She appears at auto shows and other public events, and makes the occasional speech, but she has never appeared very comfortable in the public eye and she comes across as wooden and overly rehearsed.

"She doesn't have to practice for the Mannequin Challenge," jokes Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book.

But Lindland says it's clear that Barra is highly respected.  "People want to work for her. I think we see the results even if we don't see how she gets them."

Barra will serve on a business strategic and policy forum that will meet with Donald Trump after he becomes president.

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.