A GM employee for 33 years and the US car maker’s current executive vice president of global product development, 51-year-old Barra was elected to the top job by GM's board of directors. She will also become a member of the board of directors in the new role.
GM said Akerson, 65, moved his succession plan forward by "several months" after his wife was recently diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer.
“I will leave with great satisfaction in what we have accomplished, great optimism over what is ahead and great pride that we are restoring General Motors as America’s standard bearer in the global auto industry,” Akerson said in a statement to employees.
He told US media, "It was not my intention for my days at General Motors to end this way. But I think, when you think about life’s priorities, my family and my wife rank number one."
Barra said given its current crop of cars and trucks and its strongest financial performance in recent history, it was an exciting time at GM.
“I’m honoured to lead the best team in the business and to keep our momentum at full speed,” Barra said just days after the US government sold its last remaining shares in General Motors at an approximate loss of US$10.5 billion ($11.5 billion).
Succeeding Akerson as chairman will be 66-year-old Theodore (Tim) Solso, while executive vice president and president for North America Mark Reuss will fill Barra's current role when she takes control of the company on January 15, 2014.
Once in her role as CEO, Barra will join the likes of IBM’s Virginia Rometty, Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi, Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer, Hewlett-Packard’s Meg Whitman and Xerox’s Ursula Burns as a female heading a top US business.