General Motors CES Mary Barra

GM Shines at CES: Why a Woman May Be a Better Car Company CEO Than a Man

The car segment at CES has always been a feast for the eyes and often a showcase of how large companies didn’t get technology trends. I was invited to a session five or so years ago where I got to talk to the then Ford CEO, and he asked for feedback; I said: “if you don’t work to understand Tesla better and why people love that company, you are likely to lose your job.” The dedicated car analysts in the room nicely called me an idiot, and Tesla’s valuation passed Ford’s, and that CEO was let go. I don’t know what happened to Ford at this CES (I am impressed with their Mustang Mach-e and was considering buying it).

I was, for years, convinced a woman couldn’t run a car company. Not because some women don’t know cars, I’ve known of women mechanics that were masters. Still, to run a male-dominated company building products mostly for men, I believed the role as ill-suited for a woman as a man would be running a woman-dominated company making products for women. But the buying dynamic on everything has changed, and the automotive industry is getting more diverse, particularly in design. Watching Mary Barra—GM’s CEO—talk and seeing what she brought forward on stage now has me convinced that maybe, just maybe, a woman could do a better job for the future of self-driving electrics than a man could.

We’ll get to the cars they spoke of in a moment but let’s start with why a woman may be the bets choice for a car company CEO in this more diverse age.

The Education Problem and Opportunity

The issue with engineering firms—and car companies are engineering firms—is that for decades we’ve told girls that what engineers do is man’s work, and sadly they believed us. It is hard to advance in a company defined by engineers—in this case, mechanical automotive engineers—if you aren’t one.

However, a few years back, Google did a survey that confirmed that good management often is defined by vision, flexibility, personality, and the ability to understand what motivates a customer. This set of skills is much closer to the education women have traditionally been forced into. I’ve seen this myself; if properly mentored and helped, women can be far better managers and executives because human skills, rather than math skills, are more effective at managing people. They also tend to be more effective at matching a diverse audience’s needs to a proposed product design, but only if they’ve been encouraged to offer and develop their opinion.

As we move from cars as they are to autonomous cars, we’ll be dropping performance as a primary driver over time but likely increasing the focus on appearance and user interfaces. Again, this shift to favor women who are, as a group, far more concerned with both than men. This belief isn’t all theory, I mentioned the Google study previously, but if you look at what GM is bringing to market, it is incredible.

GM’s Transition

I’ve never been a fan of GM. My first car was a 1965 Chevy Impala SuperSport, and I wouldn’t say I liked it. I haven’t been a massive fan of Ford either, but at least I had one Ford, a purple (kind of pink actually) two-door SUV that I still think was awesome (my wife picked the color, so shoot me). GM did build some nice-looking cars like the Corvette, Pontiac GTO, Firebird, and Camaro. But every time I drove one, I was struck by the cheap interior, the horrid reliability, and the crappy build quality. So, I mostly bought Japanese and German cars that tended to be more expensive and better built. Yes, I also bought Jaguars, but they were hobby cars, not cars I used for daily drives, and mostly because of how they looked, not for their reliability (which has improved a great deal over time).

But what I saw at CES last week knocked my socks off. Unless something changes, the coming Cadillac Lyriq will replace my Jaguar I-Pace when it comes out. Check it out; the car is AWESOME! They said they are working to double battery range (500 Miles+) at CES, and they hinted at a coming electric sports car, which means I’m not replacing my Jaguar F-Type until that puppy shows up. Oh, and they even have a flying car prototype! Now, they have to actually build some of this stuff, but it was cool!

Wrapping Up: Maybe Women Should Run Car Companies

GM had a huge diversity focus that contributed to these exceptional cars that were the most balanced and, except for the flying car, which is a bit out there, are all very buildable. But if I were a pickup guy, I would favor the Hummer over the Tesla Truck, and were I, sedan guy; I’d favor the Cadillac Celestiq over the Tesla S. I think, finally, someone is genuinely taking Tesla seriously and—unlike that old Ford CEO—if she can deliver, Mary Barra may turn out to be the most fantastic CEO the company has ever had. She didn’t just break the glass ceiling; she destroyed it!

Outstanding work by Mary and her team, truly outstanding!

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