Mary Barra’s Ascension To GM CEO Is Surprise Only In Accelerated Timing

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General Motors is busting out all over into a new future. A day after finally shedding the last vestiges of US-government ownership, the company named Mary Barra to succeed current CEO Dan Akerson. The move in January will make Barra the first woman chief of a global automaker and, arguably, the highest-profile female CEO in the world.

The timing of the retirement of the 65-year-old Akerson after a three-year run is earlier than many expected, but he’s accelerating it because of his wife’s serious illness. But Barra’s ascension actually comes as little surprise to GM insiders, who gave her the pole position in a four-way internal derby with GM’s North America chief Mark Reuss, CFO Dan Ammann and Vice Chairman Steve Girsky, a key figure in the 2009 government bailout of the company and the aftermath.

Barra has presided over much of GM’s recent product renaissance, and in her 33-year career there, has headed human resources and a manufacturing plant. [more]

“She is a leader in the company’s ongoing turnaround, revitalizing GM’s product development process resulting in the launch of critically acclaimed new products while delivering record product quality ratings and higher customer satisfaction,” GM said in its release.

And, indeed, some commentators already have noted that it’s Barra’s distinct product prowess that landed her the top job, not the fact of her being female — which, in an industry as traditionally male-dominated as autos, might just as possibly have barred her from the top job.

Still, some observers already are wringing their hands about the possibility of the world playing Whack-a-Mole with Barra now that her head has poked through one of the thickest glass ceilings of all.

“I do hope that Barra doesn’t fall prey to excessive scrutiny — as did Carly Fiorina [as chief of Hewlett-Packard] — because she is so visible as the first female CEO of GM,” fretted Kathy Kram, a self-professed “authority on gender and leadership” at Boston University. “That would not be helpful for her, for the company, or for those of us who want to see more diversity in the C-suite.”

GM has given “diversity in the C-suite” a huge boost with Barra’s appointment. It is finally free of the stain of government ownership left over from the bailout four years ago. Arguably it enjoys the company’s best lineup of products, brands, marketing and executive talent ever. The vehicle is primed for a long drive by Mary Barra.

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