GM's First Female Chief Has an Incentive Problem

Photographer: John F. Martin/General Motors Co. via Bloomberg

GM veteran Mary T. Barra has taken over as CEO. Close

GM veteran Mary T. Barra has taken over as CEO.

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Photographer: John F. Martin/General Motors Co. via Bloomberg

GM veteran Mary T. Barra has taken over as CEO.

Two big pieces of news on General Motors Co.: The government has sold its remaining stake, locking in a loss of roughly $10 billion, and the company has named Mary Barra to the position of chief executive officer. She will be the first woman to head a global automaker.

Of these two pieces of information, the latter is much more interesting. It’s hard to find much new to say about the government’s investment in GM: We lost money that we wouldn’t have if we’d just stepped in to provide debtor-in-possession financing to see GM through a reorganization, rather than becoming part owners so the administration could micromanage the process. That’s almost $35 for every man, woman and child in America, and we don’t even get a coupon to apply toward a new GM automobile. Still, there’s not much we can do about that now.

On the other hand, a woman is taking over in one of the most traditionally macho industries, one of the few remaining bastions of mid-century industrialism. What may be most remarkable, however, is that it doesn’t really seem all that remarkable. Interesting, sure, and a nice reminder of how far women have come in my lifetime -- but hardly a bombshell. Mary Barra has been working at GM since 1980, she’s had growing responsibility over GM’s product development and operations, and she’s been on the radar as a CEO contender for a while. Finding women in the C-suite is no longer surprising. There aren’t as many there as men, and perhaps there never will be. But women can make it to the top, even if the road is harder.

Now Barra’s job is to show that she can lead GM beyond the crisis. The company has clearly made substantial progress since the bankruptcy. But its market share has fallen, and it still seems too reliant on fleet sales and incentives to move its cars. Building on the recent accolades that cars such as the Impala and Cadillac CTS have won, GM needs to move beyond the “getting back on our feet” stage and toward a destination brand that people are excited about. That’s a tough job for anyone, man or woman.

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