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Mary Barra: The CEO who was once an HR leader

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On January 15 this year, Mary Barra became the first female CEO of a major global automaker when she took on the role at General Motors, taking over from her predecessor, Dan Akerson.

This itself is a great feat for female leaders, but what makes Barra’s appointment even more interesting is that she’s one of the few CEOs who worked her way up through human resources.

Before her appointment as CEO, Barra served as executive VP of global product development and purchasing & supply chain, but before this she was vice president of global human resources.

I have no doubt people in the HR space have rejoiced Barra’s new role – it proves HR people can make the jump to CEO and it also signifies great news for HR within GM – but it’s important to remember this career path is rare.

Just because you started in HR doesn’t mean you can always become CEO, of course, and there a few things we can learn about this career path from Barra:

She has an MBA

According to GM’s website, Barra graduated with an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, proving MBA’s still have the most amount of pull for senior leadership positions, particularly from elite universities.

She spent years understanding her core expertise and using it throughout the business

Barra’s background is engineering, which is obviously perfect for GM. But having taken up multiple roles within the company, she proved she can use her expertise in the field throughout many different areas – from plant manager, to operations engineering, to global HR, to global supply chain and global product development, thenCEO.

If you’ve got a skill that reflects the very essence of your company’s business, then figure out where else you can use that skill to gain more experience.

She didn’t stay in HR for too long

While it’s important to note Barra spent some time in HR – which no doubt helped her attain the position to succeed Akerson – it’s equally as important to realise that she didn’t get comfortable there.

According to a Washington Post article, Barra’s two years in HR came as a critical time for GM – during the bankruptcy filing – which would have given her a great opportunity to understand the corporate structure, as well has the exposure to senior leaders across the organisation.

It’s likely she took what she learned in this time and proved she could apply it in other parts of the business.

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Rebecca Lewis
Human Resources Magazine Singapore

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