General Motors Names Mary Barra First Woman CEO

The company's first woman CEO could inspire women to get into business, especially the auto business.

General Motors Senior Vice President of Global Market Development Mary Barra speaks onstage at the FORTUNE Most Powerful Women Summit on Oct. 16, 2013, in Washington, D.C.
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General Motors announced Tuesday it would have a new chief executive officer Jan. 15. Mary Barra, a 33-year GM veteran and currently the executive vice president for Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain, will take over for current CEO Daniel Akerson. Akerson is stepping down several months earlier than he had initially expected, as his wife was recently diagnosed with advanced-stage cancer, according to a release.

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The 51-year-old Barra takes over a company that has undergone major, rapid changes in recent years. Barra will be the company's fifth CEO in as many years. The U.S. government took a majority stake in the company in 2009 shortly after forcing out CEO Rick Wagoner. Since then, the company has healed considerably, particularly under Akerson's leadership. Since he took over in 2010, the company returned to the public market with a Nov. 2010 IPO and also returned to profitability. The U.S. Treasury Department also announced late Monday the government was selling its remaining stake in the company.

In a statement, Barra nodded to the company's recent success.

"With an amazing portfolio of cars and trucks and the strongest financial performance in our recent history, this is an exciting time at today's GM," she said. "I'm honored to lead the best team in the business and to keep our momentum at full speed."

The fact that the company has that momentum behind it bodes well for Barra's tenure, says one management expert.

"There's obviously been a lot of disruption and all the rest, but they're on a huge upswing now, and it's actually a pretty good time to be taking over," says Sydney Finkelstein, associate dean for executive education at Dartmouth University's Tuck School of Business. "She's very young for a CEO, and she has the potential to have a long tenure if things go well. She could be one of the most impactful CEOs in decades for the company, which is an unbelievably attractive opportunity.

Barra also will bring a deep knowledge of GM's products to the CEO office, says one analyst, which could help boost the company.

"The exciting thing about this appointment is the fact that she came from product development, and if you look at GM's success, a lot of it comes from products that customers want," says John Humphrey, senior vice president of J.D. Power & Associates' global automotive practice. "Some of GM's troubles going into the downturn were that the products weren't meeting customer needs.

The company's products earned praise Tuesday, when GM earned three of the six finalist spots for North American Car and Truck of the Year.

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Barra will also raise the profile of women in U.S. business, as she will be the first woman at the helm of a major U.S. automaker and one of 23 women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Women are underrepresented throughout corporate leadership; a new study from women's advocacy organization Catalyst finds only 16.9 percent of women on Fortune 500 boards in 2013 were women, up only slightly from 16.6 percent in 2012.

Deborah Gillis, chief operating officer of Catalyst, says the very act of putting women in leadership positions can boost a company.

Companies can see "an important benefit that comes when you have diverse perspectives and talents," she says. "That ensures that your company is benefiting from a full depths of talent that's available."

The benefit to GM of having a female CEO may not be so direct, says Finkelstein; rather, the advantage may be because Barra could inspire more women to get into business.

"She is already by virtue of being there and will be even more so because of the high profile a tremendous role model for a lot of people," he says, a fact that might be amplified because the auto business is perceived as a "guys' business."

Bringing more women – and therefore a broader array of people and abilities – into GM could bolster the company's future. 

"The talent pool is what we're talking about," he adds.