Behind the Wheel with Phil Lebeau

Rock Star: GM's new CEO draws a big following

GM's Barra: 32 new launches this year & last
GM's Barra: 32 new launches this year & last

Looking for the new General Motors CEO Mary Barra at this year's Detroit Auto Show?

Follow the crowd.

Where ever she's gone at this year's show Barra has been trailed or surrounded by a sizable group of reporters and photographers snapping pictures, recording video and hoping to hear a few comments from the woman charged with leading GM.

"She's a rock star," says Mark Phelan of the Detroit Free Press. "People are fascinated with Mary. Foreign reporters, non-auto reporters, and of course all of us who cover this industry."

(Read more: New CEO: GM tending to embarrassing Silverado recall)

How much is Barra in demand?

GM says interview requests for Barra are up 50 percent compared with interview requests for outgoing CEO Dan Akerson at last year's auto show.

Media scrum madness

Phelan still can't believe what he saw Sunday night after Barra appeared at the unveiling of the new GMC Canyon. When the press conference ended, a swarm of reporters descended upon the front of the stage and began peppering the new CEO with questions.

Mary Barra
Getty Images

These types of "media scrums" with auto executives after new vehicle press conferences are a standard part of every auto show.

However, Sunday's scrum with Barra turned into madness with reporters and photographers shoving each other, throwing elbows to jockey for position and yelling at each other in a desperate attempt to get a microphone or camera close to Barra.

"That crowd was unlike anything I've ever seen at an auto show," says Phelan. "It was crazy."

With reporters crushing each other, Barra stood there unfazed by the entire spectacle.

One of the first questions was what it meant for her to be the first woman ever to run a major automaker?

(Read more: Real challenge is ahead for GM's first female CEO)

Barra calmly replied, "I'm honored and humbled to lead GM."

After a few minutes, with the help of GM handlers clearing a path, she left the scrum and the press conference.

The message was clear; Mary Barra has no interest in being THE story at General Motors.

An engineer at heart

Barra is well aware of the significance her appointment as CEO of General Motors.

She has shattered the glass ceiling in an industry that has been dominated by men.

(Read more: Kyle Bass takes stake in 'undervalued' GM)

GM's Mary Barra focused on the future
GM's Mary Barra focused on the future

"Is it important in a symbolic way? Absolutely. It was men who ran GM into bankruptcy. Let's see if a woman can do better," said Eric Noble, a consultant with the Car Lab.

But does Barra have any special message she hopes young women or girls take from seeing her climb to the top of Fortune 500 Company?

"If I can encourage young women or men, as they're looking at fields they want to go into to pursue a career in math and science, that's great. We need more people with technical degrees," she told CNBC's Squawk Box during the auto show.

Focus on the cars and the team

Barra's answer about the importance of engineers says a lot about how the new CEO sees herself and her role at the automaker.

She has an engineering degree from Kettering University outside Detroit, which was formerly known as the GM institute.

(Read more: Government sells the last of its GM stake: Treasury)

During her career at GM, Barra has risen through the ranks on the production side of the business, earning praise for her work to push GM to build better cars and trucks.

"I think a big reason many people are fascinated by Mary is because her focus is on… what GM is building, and the people of the company," said Phelan.

Her candor is refreshing, especially for veteran reporters of the auto industry who listened for years as GM executives talked about building world class cars while continually rolling out forgettable models.

When Barra was the head of product development for GM she sent a memo to GM designers telling them, "No more crappy cars."

That story has been re-told numerous times since Barra was named CEO and is no doubt a question reporters, including this one, have asked her during the few times she has given interviews at this auto show.

Mary Barra may be the rock star in this industry right now, but she knows her act will only having staying power if she succeeds in leading GM.

—By CNBC's Phil LeBeau. Follow him on Twitter @LeBeauCarNews.

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