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A Woman CEO “Inevitable” at a Detroit Big Three Automaker, says GM Chairman Akerson

Current chief exec’s talk of a “car gal” puts focus on GM global product chief Mary Barra.

by on Sep.25, 2013

Is GM product czar Mary Barra on her way to becoming the maker's next CEO?

While he has said he is in no rush to retire, General Motors Chairman and CEO Dan Akerson dropped a big hint about who might eventually replace him, telling his audience at an automotive conference in Detroit that it is “inevitable” a “car gal” will eventually run one of the Motor City’s Big Three automakers.

GM has already come a long way from the days when its management team was dominated by “car guys” in gray flannel suits. It currently has four women on its board of directors and six women rank among its corporate officers. And there has already been buzz that Mary Barra, the maker’s senior vice president of global product development could be on the short list of those with a shot at eventually replacing Akerson, who turns 65 next month.

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“You’ll have more women in board rooms and more women in senior management 10 years from now, at least I hope so,” Akerson said during a speech to the 2013 Michigan Automotive Summit.

Women have been slowly gaining a foothold in the auto industry over the last three decades, but for the large part, most have been assigned to traditionally “female” roles in senior management, such as Human Resources, public relations or environmental affairs.

CEO Dan Akerson says a "car gal" CEO is "inevitable" at one of the Big 3 Detroit makers.

The 51-year-old Barra is part of a short list who have broken through the industry’s glass ceiling into positions normally reserved for men, in this case overseeing GM’s global product development process.  Notably, Forbes Magazine named Barra the 41st most powerful woman in the world in 2012, moving her up to position number 35 when that list was updated this year.

While Akerson has often irked industry traditionalists, he has shown a propensity for ignoring traditional industry rules and traditions, perhaps a reflection of the fact that he came from outside the automotive world. The GM chairman and chief executive had previously worked in the telecomm and financial industries before moving to Detroit in the wake of GM’s 2009 bankruptcy.

(GM regains its Investment Grade debt rating. Click Herefor details.)

Under Akerson, a number of veteran executives have been shifted or ousted entirely as he has pushed to rebuild a company that was once the world’s largest industrial concern but collapsed under the weight of billions in debt – and the impact of increasingly powerful competitors such as Toyota and Volkswagen.

“I don’t believe that Western white men have all the answers,” Akerson said on Wednesday.

He’s clearly not the only one to buy that argument.  Ford Motor Co.’s top product development executive is Raj Nair, its top engineer Kumar Galhotra, both from the Indian subcontinent. Ford also has a number of women in senior positions, though none considered likely to take the helm when CEO Alan Mulally has hinted he will retire in 2014.

The openness of Detroit makers to consider non-white male leaders coincides with broader changes in the Motor City industry.  All three of the current CEOs, including Akerson, as well as former Boeing exec Mulally and one-time GE star and now Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne began their climbs up the executive ladder outside the auto industry.  Traditionally, each of the domestic makers stuck with industry insiders – and usually only men who had risen within the ranks of that particular company.

That has changed dramatically and industry veterans expect an even more dramatic shift going forward. Not only are the Detroit Big Three more willing to hire talent away from their competitors, but they’re increasingly looking outside the auto industry – whether the potential executive is male or female, white or minority.

While Akerson’s comments may shine a spotlight on Barra, she is far from a shoe-in as the next GM CEO, however.  Among her chief rivals is Mark Reuss, currently the head of GM’s North American operations. Reuss was, in fact, the choice when Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre stepped down in 2010. But the board opted to replace the lanky Texan with one of their own members, Akerson.

(GM CEO Akerson says Cadillac plans to tackle Tesla with high-mileage luxury electric vehicle. Click Here for the story.)

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One Response to “A Woman CEO “Inevitable” at a Detroit Big Three Automaker, says GM Chairman Akerson”

  1. Jorge M. says:

    It’s about time the glass ceiling was shattered in all forms of business.