GM CEO: Behavior change will improve company

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra said Wednesday she is "on a mission to break down the silos" at the company and says she and the executive leadership team need to change their behaviors to help drive cultural change into the global automaker.

Barra was among a lineup of executives and politicians who spoke during Fortune's annual Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif. Barra ranked No. 2 on Fortune's Most Powerful Women in Business list behind Ginni Rommetty, chairwoman, CEO and president of IBM; Rommetty also spoke at the conference.

Barra, who took over as GM CEO in mid January just before the ignition switch recall crisis broke, was introduced by Fortune as the "CEO with the toughest job in corporate America."

GM's culture has been blamed partly for the company's problems in the delay of recalling 2.59 million older Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and small cars for faulty ignition switches that could turn off while driving, causing air bags not to deploy. GM knew of problems with the cars going back more than a decade but didn't begin recalling them until mid February. GM linked the problem to 13 deaths, but an independent victims compensation expert has now approved claims for 24 deaths.


Barra on Wednesday told a crowd of mostly executive women, including some from GM, that she hates the word culture.

"To me it's behaviors. That's something I can change right this minute," she said. "The leadership team, the top 17 people who run the team, we have to demonstrate the behaviors. We have to change."

She said during a recent meeting with 300 GM leaders, they agreed on behaviors that most need to change. Barra said it wasn't 50, but five they agreed on: candor, trust, winning, accountability and "tenacity to face the challenges."

Barra says she has to change, and that will drive more change throughout the company. Last week, she told reporters in Milford following the GM's Global Business Conference that she may have been too nice in the past. She said she is going to be more impatient and will hold others accountable for hitting their goals and plans.

Fortune Magazine Editor Alan Murray interviewed Barra.

Barra called feedback a "gift" and said she regularly asks for feedback from the board of directors and her team.

"I truly think all of us can improve," she said.

Many CEOs contacted Barra to offer support since she took over as CEO and during the crisis. She said there were "too many" to name but she valued their advice. Barra said she relied on a "core group" that mainly included her leadership team. She said GM Chairman Tim Solso was always available, as were all board members.

Murray asked Barra about why she never asked for a pay raise over her three-decade GM career.

"I've always been motivated by the work I've been doing," she said. "My mother was born and raised in the Depression and really taught me the value of hard work."

Barra also discussed technology advancements at GM such as the capability to pipe OnStar 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot into vehicles and how GM is working on how to use data from that connection to warn customers about what is wearing out in their vehicle or how to drive more efficiently.

She also reiterated GM's lead in vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology, as it plans to debut standard technology on the 2017 Cadillac CTS that is capable of talking to other cars and roadway infrastructure and its Super Cruise technology that will debut on a different 2017 Cadillac allowing a vehicle to drive itself on highways or in stop-and-go traffic.

Murray asked Barra to offer attendees one piece of advice.

"Do something you're passionate about, do something you love," Barra said, adding that by doing that you naturally will succeed. "Life's too short."

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