GM CEO Mary Barra Gives Personal Business Perspective to Ross Undergrads


A group of Ross undergraduates recently experienced a rare opportunity: a private audience with General Motors CEO Mary Barra at the company’s global headquarters.

Photo by John F. Martin for General Motors

Students from Associate Dean Lynn Wooten's and Prof. Cheri Alexander's undergraduate MO415 and MO470 classes headed down to the Renaissance Center in Detroit on April 9 for the event. Wooten began with a short lecture on the “Fundamental State of Leadership,” an article written by Ross Prof. Robert Quinn, which was required reading in preparation for the trip. Alexander then introduced Barra, whom she has known for almost 30 years since they worked together at GM’s Fiero plant.

Barra offered some comments on what it means to be a leader, and then she took questions from the students for an hour. She talked about collaboration and holding each other accountable; about putting the customer at the center of everything you do; and about the importance of individual and corporate values. She noted that her own values -- including hard work -- were instilled in her by her parents, and that her father had worked as a die maker at GM for 39 years.

"It was a great experience meeting Mary Barra, and she had great advice to offer us,” BBA senior Melanie Betel said. “A couple pieces of advice that stuck out to me were: Work hard no matter what you're doing and it will be noticed; create your own work/life balance, because a company will take as much as you are willing to give them; and find something you truly have passion for and enjoy waking up for every day."

BBA junior Stuti Jain asked Barra what it felt like to be named the second most powerful female business leader in the world by Forbes, and Barra answered that it was humbling and that she was in the company of many amazing leaders. She also said that she looks forward to the day when all such “top leader” lists are gender neutral.

Photo by John F. Martin for General Motors

When Haider Malik, a junior pursuing a minor in business, asked Barra about pivotal moments in her career, she spoke of the importance of getting her MBA, and how the amazing learning experience changed her perspective on things and opened up a whole new set of business frameworks and dimensions. When he asked about her failures, she noted a lesson she had learned well about not taking too long to exit someone who really wasn't performing or didn't fit.

Following the Q-and-A, GM hosted the students for dinner in a room overlooking the Detroit River. The bus ride back to Ann Arbor was filled with comments regarding what the students had just experienced, as they constructed a thank-you message to Barra.

“This was a great capstone experience to have going into graduation mode in a few weeks,” senior Danni Shapiro said. “Professor Alexander, Dean Wooten, and Ms. Barra truly demonstrated their commitment to positive business and doing the ‘right’ thing, even when it’s the hard thing to do. Experiences like these provided by Ross really emphasize your dreams are accessible, with some hard work combined with the knowledge that we’ve gained here at Michigan."

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