Marry Barra

GM's Mary Barra to staff: 'No more crappy cars.'

October 16, 2013: 11:40 AM ET

Mary Barra, who is a top contender to eventually run General Motors, is considered to have one of the hardest jobs in the global auto industry.

By Beth Kowitt, writer

FORTUNE -- Mary Barra has one directive for her employees: "The simple thing I say to them is, No more crappy cars, and that resonates."

The phrase is part of a broader approach GM's EVP of global product development and global purchasing and supply chain has taken in empowering her employees. Before "boundaries were put on them, and we didn't give them the recipe for success," she said during Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit on Wednesday. "Now we're saying no excuses." The results, she says, are visible on the road today for GM.

Barra, who is a top contender to eventually run the company, is considered to have one of the hardest jobs in the global auto industry. "You have to slash development costs and still build exciting cars," noted interviewer Becky Quick, co-anchor of CNBC's Squawk Box.

Before taking on her current role, Barra was vice president of global human resources. It was a critical time for the company as it came out of bankruptcy. "I wanted to drive a new culture," she says.

MORE: Complete coverage of the Most Powerful Women Summit

The bankruptcy gave the company a chance to reset and do things differently. Barra significantly cut the number of HR reports and paperwork that needed to be filled out, and she relaxed the dress code. "That was probably the most interesting change and biggest learning I had into the culture," she said. Previously the dress code had been 10 pages long. The company was entrusting its employees with million-dollar budgets, but it didn't believe they could dress themselves for work without detailed instructions. She changed the policy simply to dress appropriately. "It became a window into the change we needed to make at General Motors," she said.

Barra spent 30 years as an engineer and was the first female chief product officer at GM. Barra loved math and science from fifth grade on and decided on a career in engineering because it applied math. Going into the automotive industry was an easy decision -- it was in her blood. Her father worked for GM (GM) for 39 years.

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