The One to Watch: What You Can Learn From Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO of General Motors

General Motors is now enjoying stronger than expected profits, despite facing huge penalties to resolve its ignition switch litigation. I believe that Chairman and CEO Mary Barra’s presence is a major factor.

To grasp how she gained gravitas, let’s wind the clock back to April 2014 and put you in her hot seat.

You’re just two weeks into your role as CEO of General Motors with your company in deep trouble over defective ignition switches tied to dozens of deaths. Your backside is planted at a congressional hearing. Cameras are in your face. Reporters are panting. Politicians are pontificating. It’s political theatre at its finest.

But are you at your finest? How will your leadership presence be felt – and how will it reverberate around the world?

As for Mary Barra, her presence that day inspired the opening skit on Saturday Night Live. SNL lampooned her nonresponsive answers and skewered her apparent lack of empathy for the victims, even though logic tells us that she was reciting precisely what her legal team advised her to say. Her presence was hardly off to a stellar start.

But as the old saying goes, she’s come a long way, baby.

Today, Mary Barra’s presence is resonating universally – with her board, employees, investors, analysts, and the car-buying public. She strode confidently onto one of the largest stages in the world recently as keynote speaker at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES). In the months between Congress and CES, her capabilities as a businesswoman have restored investor and consumer confidence. General Motors rewarded her by adding Chairman to her title, making her the first woman elected to the role in company history, and making GM one of only 11 companies in the S&P 500 with a female filling the dual CEO and chairperson roles.

Barra’s presence has unfurled like a “Bolt” – not coincidentally the name of the electric car that she unveiled at CES.

In a short time, Barra’s public presence has zoomed from zero to hero. I was curious about why and how it happened. So I reviewed videos of Barra in numerous appearances over the past two years, ranging from a live interview at a Fortune Magazine conference to various taped interviews and, finally, the recent CES keynote. I offer three quick observations to help you learn from her experiences so that you can follow her lead.

She’s not a “red-lighter.” In my television days, we privately referred to certain talk show guests as “red-lighters” because they radiated fake personas when the red tally lights of the studio cameras blinked on. Once the tally lights turned off (meaning we were now off-camera), the “red-lighters” reverted to their true, often harsh personalities. There was a major gap between who they really were and who they wanted people to think they were. Barra doesn’t do that. By all accounts, she now remains her warm and approachable self, despite the situation. She appears to have learned a valuable lesson at the congressional hearing, where her tone defied her natural warmth. Your lesson from this? Mind the gap. Regardless of the situation you find yourself in, a consistent tone is vital to earn trust and commitment.

She’s mastered the blink rate. What’s a blink rate? The number of times you blink per minute. It’s influenced by your cognitive process and can rise dramatically when you’re under stress. Watching her congressional hearing, I noticed that Barra’s blink rate skyrocketed to 60 blinks per minute (BPM). The National Institutes of Health lists the average BPM at 17. It can go as low as four when you’re focused on reading. What can you take from this? As a senior leader, you have plenty of opportunities to be both influential and stressed. Be aware of your blink rate under stress. When you master your blinks, you exude a calmer presence. Calm begets calm.

She owns the platform. When Barra unveiled the new Bolt on the CES stage, she said, “It’s more than a car – it’s a platform.” The same could be said for her leadership. And yours. Take Barra’s lead. When you have a platform opportunity, don’t be the “I’m-above-it-all” executive who doesn’t make time to rehearse. It’s your responsibility to get up on the stage before the event to take the uncertainty away. You owe it to yourself, your company and the crew who have labored away to show you in your best light. And for heaven’s sake, learn how to read the floor prompts or the TelePrompTer. Otherwise, you’ll sound disingenuous or ill-informed as you revert to reading slides or someone else’s words. Barra can still use a tweak or two to improve her Prompter-reading presence, but she’s evolved very quickly.

Presence isn’t an instinctive “it” factor. As a leader, you can, and must, sharpen your presence to maximize your leadership and to pilot your organization’s growth. We can all use a “Bolt” of leadership presence.

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