HR Administration

Mary Barra, General Motors’ Next CEO, Breaks Ground for Women and HR

By Rita Pyrillis

Dec. 11, 2013

Mary Barra, seen here in January 2012, will become the next CEO of General Motors in January 2014. Photo by John F. Martin for General Motors.

It wasn’t only women who cheered when General Motors Co. appointed Mary Barra as CEO on Dec. 10, making her the first female CEO in the male-dominated U.S. auto industry. Human resources professionals also had reason to celebrate — she is one of the few HR professionals to reach the pinnacle of the corporate ladder.

“It’s also an important signal to HR professionals that if you’re interested in a career path that extends beyond HR you need to have experience in multiple facets of the business,” said author and consultant Sue Meisinger, who is the former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. “For many HR pros, their capstone is to be the head of HR. This shifts the sights of many in human resources.”

Barra, 51, executive vice president of global product development, began her career as an intern at GM 33 years ago. From there she moved to the manufacturing floor as a manager and worked her way through several key positions, including vice president of global human resources from 2009 to 2011.

Her promotion to head of HR was also seen as groundbreaking. Barra had no human resources experience. She has a degree in electrical engineering and an MBA from Stanford University.

“You’re seeing people with HR experience going into executive jobs and people without HR experience going into HR jobs, and I think that’s really interesting,” said Theresa Welbourne, a professor at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California.

It also signifies that the male-dominated industries are disappearing, Meisinger said.  

“Much of the attention that she’s received circles around the fact that the car industry is seen as a male domain,” she said. “This signals that there aren’t many companies anymore that are either male or female. That’s why Marissa Mayer and Meg Whitman got so much attention when they became CEOs. There aren’t too many women leaders in the tech industry.”

Barra is viewed as a leader in the company’s turnaround since emerging from a Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010. She replaces CEO Dan Akerson who will retire in January 2014.

“This is a woman who is clearly qualified for the job,” Meisinger said. “It’s great succession planning on the part of GM.”

Rita Pyrillis is a Workforce senior editor. Comment below or email Follow Pyrillis on Twitter at @RitaPyrillis.

Rita Pyrillis is a writer based in the Chicago area.

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