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Detroit — Can you lead a cultural revolution at Detroit's most hidebound automaker if you don't know how long it will take?

Or exactly what the transformation would look like. Or how outsiders — investors and analysts, dealers and customers, competitors and suppliers, the news media and interested government regulators — can judge whether General Motors Co. is making progress beyond corporate spin du jour.

"I don't have a good answer for you," CEO Mary Barra told The Detroit News Monday. "I think it's going to take some time."

She's right. Just 10 months into her tenure, Barra is striking a tonal shift in leadership that GM has not seen or heard in decades, if ever. The longtime insider is sounding the outsider, the corporate equivalent of an accomplished sister ripping bare the dysfunction of her own family.

GM CEOs don't talk this way, not publicly, anyway. They don't admit they don't know. They don't vow there will be a change in behavior, starting with the C-suite, or the people will be changed. They don't invite employees to work somewhere else if they "aren't aligned with the mission."

They don't offer what essentially is a binary choice: Get on the team and resolve to do what's right for the product, the company and the customer, or get out — Barra's variation on the sentiment Ford Motor Co.'s rescuer-in-chief, Alan Mulally, used to drive discipline in his remarkable transformation.

They don't enlist the company's top 300 executives in a continuing campaign to embrace candor and accountability, as Barra did; to share the problems of others, not run from them; to drive for the best results by demonstrating a passion to win, not just finish in the middle of the pack.

Serial failure can cause such introspection — or at least it should. Less than five years out of bankruptcy, the searing ignition-switch debacle that emerged publicly during Barra's first weeks on the job offered the new boss a galvanizing opportunity for reappraisal and change.

Add the harsh glare of congressional hearings, a mounting death toll of victims connected to faulty switches and the equally harsh findings of an internal investigation that exposed incompetence and callousness in equal measure.

All of it, and more, amounts to a clarion call for change, a confluence that Barra's five or six predecessors either did not have or could not summon the courage (and insider's know-how) to execute.

She's running with it, despite the heavy burden of history that conditioned factions, functions and regions within GM to wage counter-productive battles with each other instead of the competition.

Barra isn't just asking employees to do the right thing, as she likes to say. She's asking them to forget their collective history, littered as it is with blame shifting, petty politicking and posterior covering.

If she succeeds, even marginally in the early going, she will be the most consequential CEO to lead GM since Jack Smith used the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening of China to position GM as a truly global automaker operating and selling on six continents.

Deep cultural change eluded Smith, his successor Rick Wagoner and the revolving door of CEOs who followed until Dan Akerson and GM's directors chose Barra to succeed him. More than any of them — outsider CEOs included — she's finally identifying, for all to see, the proverbial elephant in the room.

GM homers will cringe at Barra's criticism, her temerity to publicly acknowledge what legions of GM employees have long known. And people like me will be slammed for amplifying her criticism and exacerbating whatever nervousness it may engender among the troops.

Tough on both counts. GM is making enormous strides with its vehicles and its financials, beginning to thoroughly revise its story among investors skeptical the new GM is truly different than the old one.

Because as much as sheet metal, design, engineering and balance sheets can be restructured — and has been — evidence that GM's culture is not the same it ever was is harder to produce.

"Going through what we went through" this year with the ignition-switch debacle and the congressional hearings "made me impatient," Barra told The News. "I know what this company can do so, darn it, let's do it."

Or else, apparently. Welcome to the Pressure-cooker of Rising Expectations. With better metal, better financial results and the ignition-switch scandal beginning to recede from the headlines, Barra is tying her tenure to the hardest restructuring there is:

Changing the hearts, minds and actions of the tens of thousands of employees whose individual decisions can change what GM does and how it's perceived. It begins at the top, but it doesn't end there.

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http:\\detroitnews.com\staff\27151.

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