GM's directors unanimously elected Barra on Monday to lead the board, effective immediately. She succeeds former Cummins Inc. Chairman and CEO Theodore Solso as GM's chairman. Solso will stay on as the board's lead independent director, the company said in a statement.
Barra, 54, took over as CEO in January 2014, becoming the first woman to lead a major global automaker. Her appointment came shortly before GM became embroiled in a scandal over faulty small-car ignition switches. But she led GM through the crisis and a related series of embarrassing safety recalls.
As CEO, Barra replaced Dan Akerson, a former telecommunications and private equity executive, who held the chairman and CEO roles before leaving GM.
GM's leadership consolidation runs counter to the trend in corporate governance, according to the proxy advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services. About half the companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 index have separate chairman and CEO roles. That's up from 30% in 2005.
Corporate governance experts often recommend separation of the roles to keep the board more independent. But Solso said the GM board determined that it's best to combine the roles again "at a time of unprecedented industry change."
Having Barra in the dual role, he said, will "drive the most efficient execution of our plan and vision for the future."
However, Charles Elson, director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware, sees the consolidation as "a real step backward" for GM.
Elson said boards have been separating the chairman and CEO roles because they are now viewed more as monitors of a company, not advisors.
"The board is there to oversee the CEO, and the person who is chairing the board shouldn't be the person overseen by the board," he said. "It's a conflict."
Barra joined GM at age 18 as a co-op student, working for several months at a time at GM's Pontiac division while studying for her engineering degree at General Motors Institute, a Flint, Mich., college then owned by the company.
She graduated from GMI, now Kettering University, in 1985, and GM eventually sent her to Stanford University to earn an MBA. When Barra returned, she rotated through a number of jobs, including executive assistant to then-CEO Jack Smith, a role often given to rising stars. She headed midsize car engineering and managed GM's Detroit-Hamtramck plant.
Just after GM's 2009 bankruptcy, then-CEO Ed Whitacre put Barra charge of human resources, a stop that isn't normally along the CEO track.
In 2011, Akerson plucked Barra from HR to run GM's huge worldwide product development, an operation he says was in chaos at the time.