5 Insights from Mary Barra after Her First Year with GM

Jan 15, 2015 02:00 PM EST | Jordan Ecarma

General Motors CEO Mary Barra has had quite a year. Coming into the role as the first female CEO of a global car company, Barra has faced a slew of recalls, federal investigation and criticism of GM's safety standards, all while the automaker worked to recover its image after being bailed out by the government in its 2009 bankruptcy restructuring.

Barra appeared at the Automotive News World Congress on Wednesday to share some insights from her first year. Here are five interesting tidbits from her conversation with Automotive News.

Barra had to fire "many" employees personally in the wake of GM's disastrous ignition-switch recall.

"I served in HR for a short period of time when we came out of bankruptcy. I had to have many difficult conversations," she said, adding that her method is to fire people in such a way that they "maintain their dignity."

The headline-making CEO has become something of a celebrity.

"You'd really prefer people to not recognize you," she said of encounters with strangers who sometimes approach her during a shopping trip. "But they come to you and say, 'Hey, I'm really excited about that vehicle. The support, even from strangers who recognize me, has been overwhelming."

She didn't know about the ignition switches, period.

The question of whether or not she was aware of the faulty ignition switches before she was notified in January 2014 "was asked and answered," Barra said.

The rest of the world has underestimated the auto industry.

"The biggest surprise was what the rest of the world and other industries thought of the [automotive] industry, that it was so stunning," Barra said. "I think they don't know us very well. I think they had us back 20, 30 years."

The grocery store--on occasions when Barra isn't recognized--is her happy place.

"There's times where I'm by myself," she said. "When I'm out grocery shopping, it's me and the cart."

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