Kyle Johnson
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Did GM Set Mary Barra Up for a Fall with Ignition Switch Recall?

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Mary Barra has stepped up and taken ownership of GM's disastrous recall where her male counterparts would have no doubt shriveled.

Mary Barra

Was Mary Barra set up to take the fall for the ignition switch recall?

Back in December, Mary Barra made history when she took over for the outgoing Dan Akerson and became the first female CEO of an American automaker. What should have been a momentous occasion—with early projections of success at NAIAS and plenty to be excited about in 2014—quickly turned disastrous when a recall was issued for GM manufactured vehicles on February 10 after it was revealed that 12 people had died due in part to an error with certain vehicles’ ignition switches. Two weeks later, the figure was upped to 1,367,146 vehicles recalled, and yesterday, three separate recalls were issued for another 1.6 GM-made vehicles.

Yesterday, Mary Barra faced the music and stepped out into the eye of the storm, apologizing for the 12 deaths that were facilitated by what may well turn out to be a decade of negligence and naming company man Jeffrey Boyer to the position of vice president of global safety. Her message to reporters was clear: nothing like the current controversy can nor will ever happen again if she has anything to say about it.

The New York Times called Barra’s press conference “a moment unlike any other at General Motors.” Mary Barra stood at the center of the firestorm and answered questions from all directions, admitting that she learned of potential issues with the affected Cobalts in late December, but stating that she was not aware of the seriousness of the issues until January 31.

NYT’s Bill Vlasic may have said it best himself: “Her performance was a marked departure from the norm in the auto industry, where corporate chiefs routinely avoid talking about recalls unless subpoenaed by Congress.”

Mary Barra is owning the disaster that the GM recall has become, having not once passed the buck off on her predecessors (even when she most likely has every right to do so). She is not speaking in circular legalese that doesn’t answer anything, favoring getting directly to the point. With 3 months of experience on the job and a massive controversy rising up beneath her feet, she’s shown herself to be a lot of things that her predecessors and counterparts are not.

Through it all, there is a question that must be asked: given the timing of Barra’s appointment to the position of CEO and the subsequent recall, could it be fairly assumed that she was given the job in order to be the face of the controversy that was sure to emerge?

Granted, it’s a bit conspiratorial, but it’s not that implausible to think that GM knew this problem was out there and had become aware that dots were being connected. Beloved former CEO Dan Akerson is encouraged to call it a day earlier than he had originally intended (though I by no means intend to imply that his wife’s illness is anything less than what it is), and the boys club that is the auto industry brings in Mary Barra to play den mother and clean up their crushed up beer cans, pretzel crumbs and, oh, the blood on their hands.

Mary Barra weathers the storm for as long as she can, is either considered a good sport for sticking it out or a company martyr for going down with a ship she didn’t captain, is given a respectable retirement package and a non-disclosure agreement, and disappears somewhere nice. GM brings in their golden boy Mark Reuss to be the charismatic and positively male face of the company, and all is right with the world again.

Perhaps it is a bit far-fetched, but provided the industry’s historical reluctance to let women ascend to positions of power, it doesn’t seem as crazy as it ought to.

No one can truly say how much Mary Barra knew about the problems with the vehicles being recalled now. No one except for Mary Barra, who has been nothing but forthcoming and genuine thus far.

“I know you want to know what happened,” she told reporters at her press conference. “So do I.”

She also said that, if asked, she will appear before Congress to answer questions. Don’t get it wrong: she will go before Congress. She will be strong, she will be direct, and she will be the kind of thing that the American public does not expect its CEOs to be: real.

Imagine if in 2016 when Hilary Clinton is elected our next President, President Obama decides it would be cheeky fun to unleash packs of wild dogs in 10 unnamed cities across the country before handing over the keys to the Oval Office. That is essentially what GM has done to Mary Barra here: thrown her to the wolves.

What they may not have expected: she is rounding them up and enduring the bites and scratches that come along with the job, even if it’s not what she signed up for. Let’s hope that Mary Barra’s refreshing approach to disaster continues on the path she’s cut for herself, and that men and women alike can learn a lesson from her.