The CEO with the toughest job in corporate America talks about leading through crisis and overhauling a culture.Mary Barra has an unenviable top role among multinationals, to be sure, not just among American companies. But it must have taken such a leadership climb for her to see how much of a mess General Motors was harboring. She emphasizes candor and transparency among her people, though she doesn't speak all that candidly in this interview and demures instead on the underbelly of the recall crisis and her personal experiences. That's not a bad thing necessarily, as she is keen to be constructive in her commentary and to move forward in the right way. A friend in the audience knew that her testifying before Congress was painful, but her mindset was of solving problems so as not to have to go back there again.
That said, Barra strikes me as a no-nonsense CEO, who is not apt to call attention to herself or even absorb company efforts into what she wants. (She has never asked for a pay raise, for example.) She cares deeply about GM and her work, and strives to communicate and collaborate with people on a behavior-by-behavior basis. On this note, it is about doing the right. In particular, it is zeroing in on the underlying causes, so that mistakes, flaws and problems do not happen again. Do the right thing seems to be her mantra, just as the National Football League called upon this very phrase to deal with the domestic violence crisis in the league.
I emphasized this very thing with colleagues I worked with previously: Solve problems, but if those problems recur, it may mean that an underlying process needs to be fixed. Specifically, for example, our unit kept delaying accounts payable to contractors we had engaged, including one that was a year and a half late. It was crucial to examine the end-to-end process. We saw problems on our end, but the root cause laid in our interface with the finance department. So we met with our colleagues there, and committed to regular meetings going forward to examine how our (corrected) process was going and what problems, if any, were emerging. This, I imagine, is something of the sort that Barra engineered at GM. Let's not forget the crisis, she emphasizes, certainly not if forgetting means out-of-sight, out-of-mind, and nothing-done.
Barra eschews the word culture. Why? Because it often means something that people cannot change, or if so, it will take 10 years to make that change. Neither was an option for her. Her focus instead is as simple and practical, yet full of unheralded wisdom, I say: Focusing on opportunities that any given situation offers for her and her people to change things. For instance, she models her value that feedback is a gift by asking for feedback. She promotes debate is good by calling on people by name, asking them what they think, and reassuring them it is fine to disagree. GM must be like the Titanic: Its sheer heft makes it physically impossible to make a sharp 90° turn. But with good foresight and planning and with the right values and process, there is every opportunity to work the wheel and turn the monolithic ship (i.e., in another incarnation) and avoid that devastating iceberg altogether.
Finally, it was a good question about what Barra will do to promote more women in the industry, presumably from her own company. Just because she is a woman, it doesn't mean that she will truly or fully be committed to gender equality. (It sounds like she is, though.) But at the same time, I think, because she is a woman, she has to work at establishing herself in a male-dominated role and industry. That must be a tough job in and of itself. It doesn't mean that she cannot attend to both, but I imagine that the latter may have to be a priority for her at first, especially in light of the GM crisis, and then over time put more attention to the former.