An Open Letter to Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors

Friday, April 4th, 2014

An Open Letter to Mary Barra, CEO General Motors

Your opening statement at the House subcommittee hearing on April 1, was clear and, to my ears, heartfelt and powerful. But, sadly, making good on those promises will be difficult. Since you have worked at GM in many positions over the years, you undoubtedly understand the challenges of creating a “new General Motors” culture.

Recently, I completed a study on what leaders of successful change did in contrast to those who led changes that failed

Leaders of successful changes did a few things much better than their counterparts. But, I believe, one of those actions is especially important for you right now. That is: visibly demonstrate your commitment to these changes until the new culture is firmly established.  

You’ve already taken initial steps to demonstrate your commitment. That’s great. Asking Mr. Boyer to head the new position of Global Vehicle Safety, hiring an outside firm to determine what happened and why, and retaining Mr. Feinberg to help you determine ways to compensate victims and families are strong visible actions

But, you are a busy person. It may be tempting to believe that you’ve got good people taking care of the important work. Often, the moment the most senior leader turns his or her head to focus on something else, the old culture takes over. People will need to know that you are the face of the new GM

Delegate, by all means. But show up unannounced everywhere – offices, conference rooms, factory floors, suppliers, GM service bays. Send the signal that this change is critically important to you personally. You cannot delegate your commitment

General Motors seems to be an entrenched culture that often does not allow bad news to move up the chain of command. In other words, people will want to please you by telling you what they think you want to hear (and, of course, to protect themselves.) Obviously, this can be deadly to any serious efforts to improve. (Mr. Boyer will probably get similarly diluted information as well.)  

Perhaps the Cold War phrase, “trust, but verify” could be your mantra. When you ask another leader about the progress they are making, don’t allow them to turn on PowerPoint. Most leaders know how to create impressive looking slide decks that hide bad news. My suggestion: talk face-to-face. Ask tough questions and demand clear answers

The good news is that you probably know exactly how to demonstrate commitment from beginning to end on big projects. But, this time, millions will be watching. And, they will be watching you

I truly wish you well

Rick Maurer  

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