Mary Barra: Five Lessons from the Kitchen Table

Mary Barra shared the story of how she rose from life on a Michigan farm to become the CEO of General Motors.
Mary Barra challenged the graduates to do their best, to be honest, and to make room to include others at the table.

Thank you, President Price, and to everyone who has worked behind the scenes preparing for this special day.

Good morning, fellow trustees … distinguished faculty and administration … honorees, families, and friends.

And most importantly, the Duke University Class of 2022. Congratulations to each and every one of you!

As the proud mom of two recent Duke graduates, I have sat in the audience for commencement twice before, including last year, when John Legend was here.

When President Price asked me to speak today, my first thought was, “Oh no, not after John Legend?!” He will be tough to follow, but I assure you that I have absolutely no plans to sing today.

You’re welcome.

It is an incredible honor to be asked to be here with you all today.

This is a very special moment… worthy of the pomp and circumstance that surrounds it. And for those of you who started the celebration last night, and maybe celebrated a bit too much… I’m glad you made it!

Like many landmark stops in life, few of us get to this day by ourselves. Behind every high and every low – your family, friends, professors, and mentors – likely played a role.

Today is a celebration of you, and everyone who helped make you, you.

And today is also Mother’s Day.

To all the mothers present, elsewhere, or with us in spirit, we are here because of you. Nothing replaces you.

Let’s all thank our mothers for everything!

 

FAMILY + THE KITCHEN TABLE

My story starts with my family because family means so much to me.

My mom came from a large family with 8 kids and grew up on a farm in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan.

She grew up in the depression and they were very poor.

“But there are many reasons for hope as well – and I think the collective conversation and progress we’re making on the power of inclusion, is a huge cause for hope. And you, the next generation of leaders, are driving that.”

My dad grew up in Minnesota – in the Iron Range – also during the depression. He earned a gold star and a purple heart serving in WWII and he worked for General Motors for 39 years, as a die maker.  A die maker is a skilled tradesperson who makes the forms for all the steel or aluminum exterior parts of your vehicle.

They both believed in the American dream, if you worked hard enough, got yourself an education, and believed in yourself, you could achieve anything.

They instilled that in me and my brother, and I still believe it today.

When I think about growing up, many of my memories are from our kitchen table.  

It was a brown Formica table with 4 chairs, and I sat across from my brother looking at my mom’s needlepoint that hung on the wall.

Every day, after school and, eventually after work, we would sit and talk about the day at the kitchen table.

Often, we had extended family and neighbors drop by.

There was always room at our table.

And while I didn’t realize it at the time, those conversations were some of the most formative of my life - who I am as a person, a wife, a mother, a friend and as a leader.

So what did I learn at the kitchen table? – I would like to share 5 lessons:

First, do your best

Second, find your purpose

Third, listen to understand

Fourth, be honest always

And fifth, include one more

I’ve learned, time and again, how fundamental these lessons have been and continue to be.

So, let’s get started!

#1 from the kitchen table… Do. Your. Best. Just three words.

Over the years … as a student, parent, leader, and mentor, I’ve met and worked with many talented people, but while talent gives you a great head start, it’s not nearly enough to win.

You need more. I’ve learned that one important trait that distinguishes those who truly excel in life is hard work.

When I was little, I was not athletic – my husband and kids can confirm this is still true today – no one wants to be my pickleball partner.  

I was a nerd. Grades were really important to me.

After a test, I would worry that I didn’t do well and my mom would always ask me, “Did you do the best you could?”

And I would say “yes”, and then she’d say, “Then that’s all that matters.”

When I was younger, that advice would sometimes annoy me. It seemed so dismissive.

But the older I got, the more I found myself calling home to hear those words after a tough test or a tough day.

I’ve always been a big believer in the expression … “Hard work beats talent … if talent doesn’t work hard.”

And to quote Coach K, “Believe that the loose ball you are chasing has your name on it.”

So if you chose to do something – do your best . . . . work hard.

A degree from Duke will open doors and give you a boost.

Speak up, volunteer, contribute, and when people need help, don’t look the other way.

It is the amount of effort you put in that will enable you to accomplish more than you ever imagined.

 

#2 from the kitchen table… find your purpose. 

I have been at General Motors my entire career…

I was 18, and started as a co-op student, meaning I worked for 3 months then went to school for 3 months and I did that for 5 years.  It paid for college.  It is where I met my husband, Tony, of 36 years.

My very first job at GM was a quality inspector on the assembly line, inspecting fenders and hood panels. My only company-issued equipment was my clipboard and my safety glasses.  I learned that working on an assembly line is hard work and the people that do it are talented.

Because I was a co-op student while going to school, I rotated through many areas, like the assembly line and met many people. 

To a person, they were generous with their time and taught me what I needed to know for the specific assignment.  I also got to see the company and the world from their perspective.  Often they would share their dreams and their struggles.   I learned empathy – putting myself in their shoes.

Empathy. It’s the ability to share and understand the feelings of another. And it’s foundational to any form of leadership.

Since that first job, I’ve worked as an executive assistant to the Chairman and Vice Chairman, in Communications, in HR, as a plant manager, and in product development.

As I grew, my roots at General Motors deepened, and my empathy for all the incredible people who had poured their heart and soul into this company grew.

I slowly started to connect with my purpose, and I realized that I had a role to play with people – to help others be their best selves.

And with General Motors… that I would be part of the turnaround to see GM become a respected industry leader once again.

Purpose is the answer to ‘why’. Always ask yourself why.

It’s a simple question and being honest with yourself will help you navigate all sorts of decisions both big and small.

It gives clarity and fuels you in challenging times.

You may or may not have your life’s purpose figured out – if you do, wonderful!

Treat it as your north star. You may veer on occasion, but you’ll find your way back.

If you don’t have it figured out yet, that’s ok. But try to seek it. It will save you a lot of time wandering.

 

#3 from the kitchen table… listen to understand.

Listening is foundational to everything. And not just listening to respond or defend, but listening to understand.

Listening leads to understanding, and understanding leads to respecting other points of view even if there are different from your own.

One of my roles at General Motors was leading global Human Resources. Candidly, I didn’t have a lot of HR experience at the time, but I felt I could make a difference.

It was a critical time for the company, and I immediately began identifying areas where I believed we could improve the company’s performance.

One area was our vacation policy, particularly a program that allowed you to buy 4 extra vacation days.

At the time, it seemed to me that the program had outlived its usefulness and no longer had a place in our leaner, more nimble company.

My team told me it was a bad idea, but I was convinced I was right.

So, I eliminated it.

The next day… all I can say is… that I nearly got eliminated myself. It was a truly unpopular move. But that’s not what made it the wrong one.

It was the wrong move because I had failed to listen and understand.

People were using those extra days when they needed the flexibility to manage work and their personal lives… and, in particular, to be there for important personal moments, like caring for a parent, attending a child’s game, or attending an important event with their partner.

More often than not, they used these days a fraction at a time — a few hours here and there.

Long story short, I course-corrected and we reinstated the vacation policy… fast.

You’re not going to get things right 100% of the time. No one does.

Don’t be so proud that you think you have all the answers. Listen.

 

#4 from the kitchen table… be honest, always.

You will make mistakes.  You will mess up.  Will you run, look the other way, hope everyone blames someone else… or will you own it? Owning your mistakes and working to fix them is one of the best ways to learn (and I would also say, to sleep at night).

I have actually found it empowering to admit a mistake.  After all, most of the people around you already know you made it and once you own it, you can go about fixing it.

Being honest also means finding your voice and having a point of view.  Don’t sit in a meeting waiting for someone else to offer up your ideas and perspectives.

And find a way to respectfully share your feedback. Everything works better when we’re able to share and receive feedback graciously. You owe it to yourself and those around you.

Your integrity is everything. It takes years to build and can crumble in a moment.  Once it’s gone, it’s almost impossible to get back.

So, protect it in everything you do.

Assume goodness on the part of others. Do what you say you’re going to do. And always remember that if you win without integrity, you really haven’t won.

 

#5 and possibly the most important lesson I learned…  include one more.  Make room at the table.

Like I said, it wasn’t just my mom, my dad and my brother at the table. More often than not, family or friends would drop by after school or work.

We’d pull up extra chairs and then, all of a sudden, it would be dinnertime. My mom would put whatever she had planned for dinner on the table, and if it wasn’t enough, she’d make tuna-fish sandwiches.

There was definitely a point in my life where, when I saw her going to the cupboard, I’d think… “Please, not tuna…”

I have to admit I was embarrassed that that was all we could offer.

And then, many years later, at my mother’s funeral, my cousin Cheryl, who is a deaconess, did the eulogy.

She started out by asking, “How many people have had a tuna-fish sandwich at Aunt Eva’s house?”

Hands shot up all around the room… and I realized it had nothing to do with tuna.

When you were at my house,

You were going to talk,

People were going to listen,

You were going to laugh for sure, 

At times you might cry either from sadness or happiness . . .

And you were going to be fed – even if it was a tuna sandwich.

There was always room for one more.  Everyone was included. That’s what Tony and I have tried to do for our children, and that’s what I try to do professionally as well.

There’s a lot that’s not right in the world today. Plenty to be worried about.

But there are many reasons for hope as well – and I think the collective conversation and progress we’re making on the power of inclusion, is a huge cause for hope. And you, the next generation of leaders, are driving that.

You’re challenging assumptions and pushing us all to be better. I hope you never, never stop.

 

That’s it – that’s my message to you today.

Thank you for letting me share a little bit of my story, and what I’ve learned along the way.

You are at a remarkable point in your lives, in a remarkable time. Whatever path you choose, you’ll have opportunity.

When the opportunity comes, what will you do with it?

Will you give of yourself?

Will you protect what needs protecting?

Will you leave this world a little bit better than you found it?

I believe you will.

Find your people.

Create your kitchen table.

Discover your own wisdom.

As you celebrate, please thank the people who have cheered you on. They will keep you grounded and focused on what’s truly important in life.

Congratulations on everything you’ve already accomplished – and everything you are about to accomplish in the bright future that awaits you.