General Motors CEO Mary Barra shared five lessons from her childhood kitchen table in her Commencement address to the Class of 2022.
President Vincent Price introduced Barra, the first woman to lead a major auto company, as “a visionary leader” who is “no stranger to this Duke University community.” Barra received an honorary degree from Duke in 2018, is a member of the University’s Board of Trustees and a parent of two recent Duke graduates.
Barra began by joking that when Price asked her to speak, her first thought was, “Oh no, not after John Legend.”
“He will be very tough to follow, but I assure you, I have absolutely no plans to sing today. That would not turn out well for either of us,” Barra said.
Barra first emphasized the importance of family and the American dream to her life story. Her mother came from a large family with eight kids and grew up on a farm in Michigan during the Great Depression. Her father grew up in Minnesota in the iron range area and served during World War II. Afterwards, he worked at General Motors for 39 years as a die maker.
“They both believed in the American dream—that if you worked hard enough, got yourself an education, believed in yourself, you could achieve anything,” she said. “They instilled it in me and my brother and I still believe it today.”
Barra said that when she thinks about her childhood, many of her memories come from her kitchen table. After school and work, her family would come together around the table and talk about their days. Often, extended family and neighbors also dropped by, Barra said. There was always room at the 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,” she said.
Barra outlined five “fundamental” lessons she learned “from the kitchen table”—always do your best; find your purpose; listen to understand; be honest, always; and include one more.
Barra said that her first lesson, to always do your best, reflected her belief that “one important trait that distinguishes those who truly excel in life is hard work.”
She recalled that her mother would always ask her if she had done the best she could when Barra was anxious about an exam. “That’s all that matters,” her mother would say.
While Barra found the question dismissive at first, the older she got, the more she found herself calling home to hear her mother’s words after a tough day.
“If you choose to do something, do your best, work hard. A degree from Duke will open doors and give you a boost...It is the amount of effort you put in that will enable you to accomplish more than you ever imagined," Barra said.
She quoted former men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski: “Believe that loose ball you are chasing has your name on it.”
Barra’s second lesson, to find one’s purpose, stems from working at General Motors since she was 18 years old, when she worked part-time. Her first job was as a quality inspector on the assembly line, where she rotated through areas and met many people. There, she saw the company and the world from various workers’ perspectives.
In 42 years, Barra has risen through the ranks, from executive assistant to the chairman to vice chairman in communications to CEO. Her “roots at General Motors deepened” and her “empathy for the incredible people who pour their heart and soul into the company grew.”
“I slowly started to connect with my purpose and I realized I had a role to play with people to help them be their best selves,” she said. “Purpose is the answer to why. Always ask yourself why.”
She added that some might not have their life’s purpose figured out yet, but for those who do, she advised they “treat it as [their] north star. You may veer on occasion, but always find your way back.”
Her third lesson from the kitchen table is to listen to understand in order to respect other people’s points of view. Barra explained that at one point, her role at General Motors was leading global human resources, an area she didn’t have much experience in. She began identifying areas that could be improved, including a vacation program that allowed employees to buy four extra vacation days each year.
“My HR team told me it was a bad idea, but I was convinced it was right. So I eliminated it the next day,” she said. “All I can say is, I nearly got eliminated myself.”
If she had listened to understand, Barra said, she would have heard from employees how important those four days were to manage their personal lives.
The story of her mistake brought Barra to her fourth lesson—be honest, always. She emphasized the simultaneous importance and fragility of integrity.
“You will mess up. Will you run? Will you look the other way? Will you hope that they blame someone else or will you own it?”
Barra’s last lesson, and what she said is the most important one, is to include one more. She explained that when people would join at the kitchen table and there wasn’t enough food, her mother would make tuna fish sandwiches. At times, Barra was embarrassed that that was all they could offer.
But years later, at her mother’s funeral, her cousin began her eulogy by asking who had had a tuna fish sandwich at Barra’s mother’s house. Hands shot up, Barra said, and everyone was smiling.
“And that’s when I realized it had nothing to do with the tuna. When you were at my house, you were going to talk, people were going to listen, you were going to laugh for sure. And you might cry, either from sadness or happiness, and you would be fed. Even if it was a tuna sandwich, there was always room for one more,” she said.
Barra concluded that although there’s “plenty to be worried about, there are also so many reasons for hope,” one of those being the progress on the “power of inclusion.”
“And you, the next generation of leaders, are driving that. You’re challenging assumptions and you’re pushing all of us to be better. I hope you never stop.”
She left graduates with one final piece of advice—to find their people, create their own kitchen table and, in doing so, discover their own wisdom.
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Milla Surjadi is a Trinity junior and editor-in-chief of The Chronicle's 118th volume.