One of the most intriguing things about Mary Barra, the CEO and chairman of General Motors and thus the head of the largest woman-run company in America, is the way she rose through the corporate ranks.

Barra has spent her entire career at GM, starting as an 18-year-old intern when she was earning her bachelor's degree in electrical engineering at Kettering University, back when it was still called General Motors Institute.

Her LinkedIn profile is fun reading, showing a succession of 14 jobs -- from "Kettering University Co-op Student" in the Pontiac Motor Division in 1980, to the chairman and CEO position she's held for almost four years now.

One of those 14 positions, which we're focusing on today, was the company's global head of human resources. It's intriguing to look at some of her decisions regarding corporate culture -- including the three questions Barra says she's always asked during job interviews. 

In fact, and as she explained at the Wharton People Analytics Conference last year, she'd tell job candidates that she was going to ask all three in rapid succession. 

The three questions are:

  1. How would your peers describe you in three adjectives?
  2. How would your supervisor describe you in three adjectives?
  3. How would people who've worked for you describe you in three adjectives?

"Ideally, you don't want the adjectives to change much at all," Barra said, according to Quartz, which reported on the conference. "Because if you're hiring for integrity, you don't want people to manage up differently than they manage down. And you want people to work just as well with their peers and superiors as they do with their subordinates. This consistency is the key to empowering teams."

Barra said she also looks for four distinct attributes in any job applicant, according to Quartz:

  • High integrity. ("That's foundational for me.")
  • Ability to act like part of a team. ("I'm looking for people who will jump in the boat, and own our problems.")
  • Ability to "accomplish things through influence, not just hierarchical power."
  • Technical competence and a passion specifically for the auto industry.

I've written before about how Barra changed GM's dress code from a long, complex policy that ran 10 full pages to a simple two-word sentence: "Dress appropriately."

It's something that seems decisive and smart on the surface. But it takes real leadership ability (and maybe a bit of luck) to be able to enforce something that simple across such a complex company.

And it seems her three-questions-in-an-interview strategy comes from the same place.

Barra calls the idea "one of my favorites. ... [I]t rolls so quickly, and you learn a lot about a person by the way they answer, given they have to think on their feet."