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CEO Mary Barra is Driving Culture Change at General Motors

Nov. 14, 2014
GM CEO Mary Barra likens culture change to changing behaviors. The behaviors the company is working hard to impart are ownership, candidness, accountability -- and improvement.

Mary Barra is nearing one year on the job as chief executive officer at General Motors Co. Named to the position in December 2013, she officially took over the reins of the global automaker on Jan. 15 – and has been embroiled in addressing an ignition switch safety crisis ever since.

That crisis has been linked to 32 deaths so far, a recall of millions of vehicles, as well as an ongoing question of "Who knew what, when?"  In April she announced the creation of a product integrity team within the global product development organization, to assure that future technical issues were addressed quickly. "This new way of developing vehicles will provide the highest levels of safety, quality, and customer service," she stated.

Even as she addresses the ignition switch crisis, Barra is looking to GM's future. In October she unveiled General Motor's growth plans, which include increasing North American profit margins, growing the Cadillac brand and boosting sales in China. GM's sales targets for China are 30.7 million vehicles in 2018, compared with 24.3 million in 2014. 

Late that same month, Barra described the auto industry as being in a period of transition, predicting that it will experience more dramatic changes in the next decade than it has in the last 50 years. Those changes, she says, will provide opportunity to "reimagine the company and the industry."

The GM chief executive made those comments Oct. 28 while speaking to a Detroit Economic Club audience. The customer, she said, will be key to General Motors capturing that opportunity, and noted they're speaking "forcefully and thoughtfully" about what the automaker must address.

"By listening carefully to their hopes, their concerns and their expectations, and then applying the talent and resources that we have, we can develop solutions that demonstrate that customers are truly at the center of everything we do," Barra said.

She touched on numerous subjects during the economic club event -- particularly during the question-and-answer session--including culture change at GM, a topic she has fielded on multiple occasions since becoming CEO.

Barra likens culture change to changing behaviors. Among the behaviors the company is trying to encourage every day among the workforce is "owning" each other's obstacles "to make sure we're solving problems together," she said. Moreover, "that we are candid with each other, that we drive accountability. If you say you are going to do something, do it. If you can't, raise your hand, get help, because there's nothing I've not seen get done when GM teams puts their minds to it."

In speaking with Automotive News, Barra put a timeline on that culture change. "A lot of people say culture change takes 10 years. We want to cut that in half," she said.

Barra's philosophy of working together to improve clearly influences her perspective on a host of issues, as illustrated by her responses to several questions posed by the Detroit Economic Club audience. For example:

On gender and being a woman CEO: "There are times that what you bring to the table helps you; there are times that what you bring to the table doesn’t help you. It's your job to work through that. It's not a gender thing. It's all of us have strengths; all of us have weaknesses, all of us have opportunities to improve. It's how we approach the work every day that matters."

On STEM: "To me the way that it starts is in the junior and middle school age kids to make sure they understand whatever they dream of being, needs math and science. That's role we can all play."

And perhaps the most interesting question of all: How does GM's CEO grade herself as she approaches one year at GM's helm. "We're improving, but we have a lot of work to go," she said.

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