Lessons from the C-Suite: CEO Mary Barra and General Motors

September 1, 2015 Jeffrey Hayzlett

My idea of new marketing is to focus on products and services from the inception of an idea all the way through to customer satisfaction. It is much more than communications or advertising; it’s engaging, thought provoking, and challenging.

We saw new marketing demonstrated in the episode of the C-Suite with Jeffrey Hayzlett, which focused on Cadillac.

Cadillac and General Motors had lost its way during the last 40 years: poor design, poor quality, and bankruptcy. Cadillac’s executives were reinvigorating the Cadillac brand with an entirely new marketing approach by listening to their customers, focusing on product development, and introducing new designs. The results are a new customer base and high customer satisfaction.

The new marketing approach was working. Cadillac is now the fastest growing automotive brand in the world. More importantly, Cadillac’s success was reflected in the turnaround that GM has undergone. GM is a transformational company. Who would have said that about GM ten years ago?

A New CEO for the Old GM or the New GM?

In January, Mary Barra broke the glass ceiling and was named the new CEO of GM. It was a huge step for a woman to be appointed CEO of the largest company in the male dominated automotive industry. It seemed like the right step and a reflection of the new GM.

Yet today, GM is under intense scrutiny for the faulty design of an ignition switch used in Chevrolets. And three months after her appointment, Barra is facing a major crisis as CEO.

Suddenly, many people are questioning Barra. In a gutsy move, she testified before the House Oversight Committee in Washington without having a lawyer by her side. She said GM was accountable for the problem. That was the right approach.

But there are big hurdles ahead. The committee chairman Rep. Tim Murphy (Republican–Pennsylvania), said, “Documents show individuals at GM allowed vehicles with safety concerns to remain on the road for almost a decade, resulting in at least 13 fatalities.” That is not what the new GM wants as it distances itself from its past.

At one point Barra had been in charge of product development at GM. I recently asked on 
Bloomberg Television if she had some role in this. In fact, an email from 2011 indicates she was advised of a problem relating to electric steering problems, which may have been indirectly tied to the ignition issue. We asked: “will Barra have to resign just as she is starting her tenure as CEO?”

What a time to become CEO! This was supposed to be the new GM. Now it seemed like the old GM was back. What happened?

After taking a second look, I am convinced GM remains the new GM, and Barra is the face of the new GM. How is she doing it?

Video Statement by Mary Barra Regarding Recall

One of my major criticisms of the old GM was it did not listen to its customers. Barra is taking a different approach.

In a video statement posted in March, Barra addressed GM’s customers:

  • “You are our compass. You are at the heart of everything we do.” The terms “compass” and “heart” are meaningful. “Compass” means GM is listening and accepting guidance from its customers. “Heart” means GM is putting its customers at the heart of GM. The old GM did not do this.
  • She is having GM do the Mirror Test - looking in the mirror and saying GM will make the recall as smooth as possible “so we will not let it ever happen again.”
  • Further, she and the company are Running the Gauntlet of this crisis and stating, “We will learn from this and we will be a better company.”

She is applying my idea of leadership and following the new marketing needed by GM. She is not being ambivalent. She is not merely suggesting GM is going to “try” to make things better.

Barra clearly states: “We will not let it ever happen again.” She is being rational. She is outcome oriented. She is representing the new GM.

Empowering GM Employees to Make its Products Safer

Barra announced a safety program which will publicly acknowledge employees who submit ideas to help make GM vehicles safer and who speak up when they see something that could impact customer safety.

She also promised GM’s senior leadership will be accountable in supporting GM employees and its customers by taking action and resolving issues in a timely fashion.

These statements show the leadership of GM is prioritizing customers and employees at every level. Based on my experience, many in the old GM had a disdain for both customers and employees.

Restating GM’s Core Values

Finally, she reiterated GM’s core values are “more than just words on paper.” What are those values?

  • GM’s customers are its compass
  • Relationships matter
  • Individual excellence is crucial

She believes she is building a company “that lives these words, day in and day out” for its employees and customers. Ten years ago, would you have heard words suggesting GM made customers its compass, cared about relationships and placed individual employee excellence at a premium? Hell, no!

Barra has a different view. She is leading a significant cultural change at a formerly hidebound company which is now a transformational company. She states, “We will learn from our recent experience, and it will make us better.”

I believe her. Mary Barra is showing me she is my kind of CEO and GM is my kind of company.

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