By now, you probably have heard that Mary T. Barra will soon be the first woman to lead a major automaker, when she replaces Daniel F. Akerson when he retires as General Motors’ CEO in January. But while this wasn’t mentioned in any of the stories I read covering the announcement, my guess is Barra (pictured below with Akerson) is also probably the first woman or man to take the helm at one of the “Detroit 3” who has spent a stint (though admittedly a relatively short one) in the top HR job.
Barra, 51, has worked for GM for 33 years, most recently as executive vice president of global product development. But before taking on that post, she served briefly (from 2009 to 2011) as vice president of global human resources at GM, taking over that role from Katy Barclay, now the top HR officer at Kroger.
As a New York Times story points out, Barra’s appointment represents something of the “changing of the guard” at GM, which now has four key positions filled by women, including Melissa Howell, GM’s current senior vice president of global human resources.
At some point, it might be interesting to learn directly from Barra how she feels her time in HR has shaped her thinking. Certainly, when she officially moves into her new role, she won’t be the first CEO who has made a stop along the way in HR, but there’s no denying it’s a fairly rare occurrence.
That said, Jason Hanold tells me this is changing, with more companies including HR as a key rotational assignment in order to occupy a C-Suite role. “This is a growing trend in succession planning and talent-management considerations,” says Hanold, managing partner at Hanold Associates LLC, an executive-search firm specializing in CHRO assignments. I certainly would have to put this in the category of a good thing.
Hanold says he’s never personally met Barra, but understands she has a reputation for being “a strong, smart leader who drives consensus-building versus being a consensus-driven leader.”
Jena Abernathy, senior partner of leading executive-search firm Witt/Kieffer, who focuses primarily on CEO searches, also chimed in on the appointment, noting that gender isn’t the only breakthrough here. In many corporate cultures, she says, time in HR is “considered a non-starter for moving any further in the organization.”
Abernathy says she has “observed first-hand over the past two decades that very capable, competent women end up in support positions in senior leadership such as HR. What Barra was able to do was move into other roles that allowed her to have more operational experience and exposure, and ultimately positioned her for the top job at GM.”
Some of you may recall a little over a month ago I quoted former GM co-chair Robert Lutz (who’s worked closely with Barra during their time together at GM) here on this same blog saying …
If human resources was either outsourced or cut down, back to its basic function of keeping basic records and making sure people get paid and that the promotional increases take place, I think we’d all be a lot better off, because they create way more work than they actually alleviate.”
As someone who’s taken on the HR role for a even a short spell, I would like to think Barra doesn’t share Lutz’ views.
(Photo by Steve Fecht for General Motors.)