A few days ago I wrote about the pressures being faced by the automotive industry’s first female boss Mary Barra, who last December was elevated to running GM. Last night, briefly, I got to meet her. This is how it went.

The event was a large dinner held by General Motors for journalists around the world. Barra was scheduled to make a welcome speech, but didn’t. “Is Mary here?” I asked a press attaché, who simply laughed. “You want to Hail Mary? Everyone wants to Hail Mary at the moment. She’ll be here, but she may not make a fuss about it.” 

During Detroit motor show week, wherever Barra has gone, she’s been pursued by pandemonium. Like it or loathe it, she’s big news. One local paper even described her as the star of the motor show in a spot where it was meant to be nominating a car. Which for her, must be both flattering and bloody annoying, because her company’s cars should be the real stars. Yet last night she managed to slip in without any fuss, which I suspect may be her preferred way of doing business.

The schedule had Barra moving round the room, with each table getting ten or so minutes of her time. We were the last table, and as she swept in she did so without any pretence.

She’s no flashy dresser or loud talker, but nor is she a shrinking violet. She can handle herself to the extent that the army of PR people felt happy pushing back, allowing her to be surrounded by journalists without protection. Trust me, that doesn’t happen often, let alone to the most in-demand person in the industry.

Unfortunately, there were too many obvious questions that had to be asked. No doubt they were the same questions Barra had been asked for the past few weeks, and especially the past three days. She dealt with them well, but inevitably it all sounded a little rehearsed. What did it mean being a woman in her position? She’s proud, but she's there to focus on the job. What is her leadership style like? She has a strong team and intends to use their talents. How will she push GM forward? By focusing on the product and the customers. And so on. 

Where she came unstuck was when the inevitable questions kept on coming. For my money, the PR people had trained her too hard, because then she started to sound like a stuck record, afraid to venture any distance beyond the mantra of “keeping the focus on the product”.

She’s right, of course, but it is utterly hollow to describe yourself, as she did, as a car enthusiast, yet refuse to betray any emotions around the subject. Given the pressures, it’s understandable, but this was not an engaging or warm exchange; it was too clinical and too devoid of personality. We were there to understand what made the new boss of a global giant tick, yet learned little. Given her engineering background and remarkable career, it was a disappointment, but perhaps I expected too much in the limited time available.

Right at the end, a journalist bowled a googly. What did Barra think of the use of ‘booth babes’ at motor shows? It was an off-beat but not unreasonable question, and an answer either way would have given us a chink of insight into Barra’s personality. Unfortunately, she ducked it. Now is not the time for controversy, perhaps, but the over-arching feeling of the exchanges so far was that she is the kind of boss who’d rather be out of the limelight and getting on with the job.

If that’s the case, somebody better tell her soon that she won’t get away with it, because this particular job and her historical rise to the top won’t let her get away with it.

As she got up to leave, I decided to make a nuisance of myself. As a group, we’d already been allowed a couple of last questions but I had more, so I asked her PR team if we could walk and talk as she headed for the exit. “Ask her yourself,” he shrugged, which was better than the standard answer of being told where to go, and hinted at least that Barra is someone who’s open to deviating from a plan. So I did, and to her eternal credit Barra walked away from the throng, through a door and then stood behind the wall where nobody could see that someone was getting an extra bit of her time.

She’s short, but has a presence alright. She looks you in the eye as you ask a question, and answers quickly and precisely. She answered two questions with candour but not much detail and then was, definitely, absolutely off.

My hunch? She’s true to her word when she says she’d rather focus on the products. It’s way too early to be definitive, but I don’t see her wowing crowds in the way Ford’s Alan Mullaly does or courting controversy at every turn like Sergio Marchionne. Not for now, anyway. And if that’s the way it is, it may well serve GM well. But I hope she grows into the job and into the understanding that big companies usually need representing, and that the very best do that on their terms and through their personalities, as opposed to those of the people around them.

It’s utterly impossible that she could have risen through GM’s ranks to the top job without being utterly brilliant; her colleagues have obviously recognised this, now we want to, too.

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