Mary Barra, CEO,GM

As the United States Government sold its last shares in General Motors last Monday, the Board of Directors at GM elected Mary T.Barra, currently Executive Vice President, Global Product Development & Global Purchasing & Supply Chain to lead a freshly revitalized General Motors that no longer has to depend on the US federal government to stay afloat.

Dan Akerson, 65, current CEO had to hasten the succession plan after his wife was recently diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer. Akerson was elected as GM Chairman and CEO on September 1, 2010 since when GM has re-invested nearly $9 billion and created or retained more than 25,000 jobs at its U.S plants.

Bloomberg reports that Mary Barra’s stint at GM is more than three decades long. She started out as a student at the General Motors Institute, which is now better known as the Kettering University. As an 18 year old female employee she was a Plant Engineer at Pontiac Motor Division, the same place where he father worked for 39 years. Her meteoric rise began when GM awarded her a scholarship and sent her off to Stanford Graduate School of Business. She was employed as executive assistant to GM CEO Jack Smith, a position from where she was able to observe how the company worked while also advising on women’s issues.

Mary Barra was only recently appointed Executive Vice President, Global Product Development & Global Purchasing and Supply Chain before which she led GM’s 15 billion dollar Global Product Development division. She is also popular for cutting down GM’s HR policy manual by 80% and making obsolete GM’s 10 page long dress code policy while she was Vice President, Global Human Resources. She allowed employees to wear jeans. “Our dress code policy is ‘dress appropriately,’ ” she announced in a memo. Businessweek reports that Barra said to a manager who was worried about the image it might send to company visitors, “So you’re telling me I can trust you to give you a company car and to have you responsible for tens of millions of dollars,” Barra responded, “but I can’t trust you to dress appropriately?”

Here’s a Fortune interview where Barra speaks about her methods.

GM’s future

Mary Barra has been reported to be spearheading the reduction of the number of platforms GM uses for its vehicles from 30 (in 2010)to 10 by 2020. This alone should save around a billion dollars every year. On the product development side, the two problems GM has had to deal with over the years has been the stop-start of product development programs, and the presence of more than one executive to oversee a vehicle development program. Barra will probably look to take measures to avoid the former, which alone should save GM another billion dollars every year. As for the latter, Barra has already taken measures to ensure there will not be more than one boss for a product development program. This is something that GM did with the Chevrolet Volt, which till date has been General Motor’s fastest from concept to production model.

Ford has been reducing the number of platforms that its engineers are working on as has Volkswagen with its MQB platform. This ‘simplification’ is said to save these companies a lot of development time and costs while still giving the customer competent cars. Mary Barra, who was instrumental in getting GM’s engineers to standardize dashboard’s in each segment of its product, eliminating the need to develop individual knee airbags for each model, seems to be on the right track already.