Career ladder: Barra, 54, earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from General Motors Institute (now Kettering University) in Flint in 1985, then an MBA from Stanford Universityin 1990. Barra worked as a co-op student while at GMI before becoming an engineer. She later became the plant manager for GM's Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant. She was promoted to vice president of global engineering in 2008, then vice president of human resources in 2009. GM named Barra vice president of global product development in 2011, adding global purchasing and supply chain in 2013. She assumed the CEO role in January 2014 and later became chairman of its board in January 2016. She also serves on the boards of aerospace/defense contractor General Dynamics, chairing the finance and benefits committee, and Stanford University.
Power metrics: Barra is the only woman to lead one of the eight largest automakers in the world. Detroit-based General Motors is the third-largest automaker with revenue of $153 billion in 2015 with more than 215,000 employees worldwide.
Super power: Barra considers her ability to build strong teams and facilitate collaboration within GM as fundamental to her success.
Biggest setback: "Setbacks — in work and in your personal life — are inevitable. What's important is how you deal with them. What I've learned is if you don't address problems head on and right away, they get bigger. Ignoring the issue and hoping the problem will solve itself are not strategies. It's much better to get the right people together, address the challenge and keep moving forward."
What defines a powerful or influential woman in today's business world, particularly in Detroit? "Successful leaders are typically defined by the work they do and the impact they make. If I can help pave the way in the transformation of the automotive industry, bring added value to our customers and create value for our shareholders, I consider that influential."
A lot of discussion has been aimed at whether you were given the "glass cliff" after replacing former CEO Dan Akerson only weeks ahead of the ignition switch recall issue. What do you make of this concept? "I don't subscribe to the 'glass cliff' phenomenon."
Are we seeing a sea change in how women can navigate executive positions? "Women are making progress. Look at all the major companies with women CEOs — IBM, Pepsi, YouTube, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin — or government positions, such as Janet Yellen heading the Federal Reserve. You're seeing more women on boards. Five of the 12 members of the GM board of directors are women, and a sixth has been nominated to replace a retiring board member at our annual meeting of shareholders in June. If that happens, women will make up half of our board."
Advice to women in the field: "In many industries, including ours, many women remove themselves from opportunities too early. I urge them to stay in the game. Don't self-select out of future positions."
The industry is changing, likely forever, with advancements in mobility. GM invested heavily in Lyft. How do you sell that to the board, knowing car-sharing likely means fewer car sales in the future? "I'm not convinced it means fewer sales. I look at it as an opportunity to parlay our resources, expertise and scale to capitalize on societal trends and new opportunities to move people. It's about being ambidextrous — managing our core business while redefining our future. We have an opportunity to create a viable and profitable business in the area of urban mobility. Our alliance with Lyft and other companies is helping us create an integrated network of on-demand autonomous vehicles. In the meantime, Lyft drivers and customers today have access to our portfolio of vehicles and OnStar services, creating a richer ride-sharing experience for drivers and passengers alike. We're also now a preferred provider of short-term-use vehicles to Lyft drivers through dedicated rental hubs in the U.S."
What's the biggest challenge in automotive right now? "Fundamentally, the way our customers interact with our vehicles is going to change in a way that hasn't happened since the industry was born more than 100 years ago. Some may view this as a disruption, but we see it as a tremendous opportunity. With the Lyft alliance, our Maven car-sharing brand and the addition of Cruise (Automation), we have a lot of pieces of the puzzle that will enable us to redefine the future of mobility."
What still gets you excited to go to work in the morning? "This is a very special company and business, and a privilege I never take for granted. Vehicles play an important role in people's lives. For many, it's the second-most important purchase they make, behind their homes. That's why we put our customers at the center of everything we do — whether it's bold new designs, innovative features or new technologies that add value and make their lives easier. At the same time, we are moving rapidly to redefine the future of personal mobility around the world. That's very exciting."
Jennette SmithHere's how we produced this special section.
Jennette SmithWe view all of our honorees over the years as part of a "legacy list," some of whom should be considered as prospects for corporate and nonprofit board service.
Vickie ElmerNot that they have a lot of free time, but when they do, here's how the 100 Most Influential Women fill it.
Sherri WelchThe new study by Grand Valley State University of Fortune 500 boards shows a correlation between board diversity and healthier profits, and Michigan companies have ample opportunity to improve board diversity, the study's co-author says.
Staff Blog | Jennette SmithI've been living and breathing this project for months and got by with a little help from my friends in the newsroom and at companies across the state.
Staff Blog | Mary KramerThat's why Crain's Detroit Business has joined with the Michigan Women's Commission and Deloitte, among others, to create a path to help more companies find talent for their boards.
Crain's Detroit BusinessIn an effort to boost women's representation on for-profit corporate boards, Crain's Detroit Business on Tuesday night launched the Michigan Women's Directory. The launch coincided with the 100 Most Influential Women in Michigan recognition event that was attended by about 700 people.