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Harvard Historian Nancy Koehn on Mary Barra, Is This A Catastrophic Car Wreck Or A Mere Crash Test?

April 8, 2014

In 2013 General Motors made headlines by making Mary Barra the first female CEO of a car manufacturing juggernaut.

Today Mary Barra and General Motors are in the spotlight for something altogether different: a safety recall on 2.6 million cars over a faulty ignition switch, which is linked to at least 13 deaths.

Last week Barra testified before a House subcommittee and within days her performance was lampooned on Saturday Night Live.

Unfortunately for Barra, there isn't much of a perceptible difference  between satire and reality:

When Barra was appointed CEO last December, we talked to Harvard historian Nancy Koehn about the significance of a woman running a battleship of a business, particularly  in an industry that has largely been driven by men. It's a conversation worth listening to as a reminder of  Barra's achievements and qualifications.   A 30-year General Motors veteran, Barra has  worked every important facet at the executive level: human resources, product development, and global supply chain.

After reviewing her experience it's hard to buy into some of the theories floating around that Barra was  set up by General Motors to be the sacrificial lamb. It also makes it hard to believe that she knows nothing.

Today we talk to Nancy Koehn about how Barra is handling this crisis as the leader of General Motors. To hear Koehn's nuanced  analysis of corporate culture, corporate accountability and where Barra will be in two years, listen here:

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