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A Conversation With GM Head Mary Barra

General Motors' CEO talks about her challenges and the value of older workers

Mary Barra CEO of General Motors, Conversation With Mary Barra

Jamel Toppin/Forbes Collection/Corbis Outline

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors automaker, is a woman in business who knows how to bring opportunities to 50+ workers.

En españolYou're the first female CEO of a major Detroit automaker. What's it going to take before that distinction is no longer newsworthy?

We've made good progress. Look at the significant companies with women CEOs — IBM, Pepsi — or significant government positions, like Janet Yellen heading the Federal Reserve. You have Phebe Novakovic and Marillyn Hewson running two of the biggest defense companies in the world, General Dynamics and Lockheed Martin. And you're seeing more women in boardrooms. It's a matter of time.

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What does the mature worker bring, from the assembly line to the boardroom?

Experience. A vehicle is roughly 30,000 parts. It's very important for a new engineer fresh out of college to partner up and work with someone who understands the intricacies. So often when one of our teammates announces retirement, I'm like, "No!" They know so much.

You also have a mentoring program with your retirees.

It's our Student Corps program. Retirees volunteer to come back and mentor high school students in the city. Many retirees say it's one of the most rewarding things they've done. They're not only helping students navigate maybe their first job, but also helping them understand the business world and have an opportunity to talk about school and experiences. It's kind of life mentoring.

How can workers over 50 remain relevant and competitive?

Look at how technology is impacting every part of our lives. Embrace it. But then also realize what you have to offer because of your different experiences and perspectives and balance. Know how you can bring that to the workplace.

What do boomers respond to in a car?

Clearly the safety features, but they're for everybody, whether you're 16 or 60, because they help every driver be better. A second area of appeal is fuel efficiency.

Electric cars are slow to catch on. Is the fear of running out of juice a factor?

There still are people who say, "But what happens when you run out of electric energy?" It's OK! You can go another couple of hundred miles on gas. Our Volt allows people who use it for short trips and recharge regularly to get on average 900 miles between gas fill-ups. We think the next generation will be even higher.

 And the autonomous car? When do you expect it?

One of our most promising technologies is Super Cruise, which is the working name for an innovative system coming to Cadillac in the 2016 time frame. It will allow you to drive on the highway without touching the wheel or pedals, both at speed and in stop-and-go driving. And in 2017, Cadillac will debut a vehicle in North America with vehicle-to-vehicle connectivity, a wireless technology that can mitigate or help avoid many crashes.

What was your first car?

A Chevrolet Chevette. Bright, candy-apple red. I took it to college.

If you could choose any classic car to cruise in, what would it be?

The '68 to '69 Camaro. It's one of my all-time favorite vehicles.

You've had to deal with some pretty grave issues, perhaps unexpectedly, right from the start. What aspects of the job recharge you?

We are either people's most important or the second most important purchase. We get to be a part of that—and the whole team is always thinking, how can we create value for the customer? How can we make their lives easier? How can we wow them? It's very exciting.

You seem to be very much into a collaborative workplace.

But also constructive tension—you want opposing views to come to the table. You bring a diverse group together to look at a challenge, and you have a much higher probability that you're solving it correctly. I saw a quote last week: "Individually we're smart, together we're brilliant."

How do you keep up your energy?

I'm a big believer of work/life balance. You need a little down time to recharge to make sure that when you're here, you're really all here. I still have a child in high school, so I go to her sporting events even if it means leaving work and working again when I get home. I probably should work out a little more than I do.

Do you have a vision for retirement?

You know, my husband and I haven't figured that out yet. I know it involves sleep.

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer who covers the auto industry.