GM CEO Barra: ‘You can’t fake culture’

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra, who for the past year has been working to overhaul long-held bureaucratic behavior at GM, said Monday she and the top 300 company leaders are working to “create the right environment” to break down barriers and solve problems.

“You can’t fake culture. You’ve got to have an environment where people feel engaged, where they’re working on things that are important and they have an opportunity to have career development,” said Barra, keynote speaker at Forbes Media’s “Reinventing America: The Workforce Summit,” on Monday in Detroit. The two-day summit is attracting entrepreneurs, investors, CEOs and policymakers.

Barra, who was interviewed by Joann Muller, Detroit bureau chief of Forbes Media, said about 30 percent of GM’s workforce is new since 2009 and the company has brought in new talent at all levels of the company. For the first time, GM will ask all 220,000 global employees for feedback in a survey it conducts every 18 to 24 months, Barra said. Employees will be asked questions about career development, company direction and relationships with their supervisors and how GM can improve the company, Barra said.

“I want to create the right environment and that’s what we’re working on,” she said.

She was busy managing the largest U.S. automaker when GM became embroiled in an ignition-switch recall crisis tied to the delayed recall of 2.59 million older cars. GM and Barra have faced congressional hearings, National Highway Transportation Safety Administration fines and a Department of Justice investigation. A compensation fund administrator has linked 97 deaths to the ignition switch defect that GM initially said was tied to 13 deaths.

GM and Barra fired employees and changed its engineering and safety departments as a result. Part of that change has been encouraging employees to raise a question or log a complaint when they notice something is wrong. Barra said the Speak up for Safety campaign, a program created about a year ago, has led to more than 3,000 employees raising potential safety issues.

CEO since January 2014, Barra talked about some of her experiences in her 33-year career at GM, where she began as a co-op student. She has worked in engineering, as a plant manager and was executive assistant to former CEO Jack Smith and Vice Chairman Harry Pearce.

“At a fairly young age in my career,” she said, she saw how the CEO and vice chairman operated.

“... How do they make decisions, how do they motivate people, how do they drive strategy across the organization?” she said. “Once I left that, I took those lessons learned.”

Barra said those starting out should do basic core jobs, such as working in the plant in an auto industry job. Workers should own the job they have, she said, to get noticed by supervisors and take broader assignments within a company to build their skills.

As head of human resources at GM, Barra boiled down a multi-page dress code into two words: “Dress appropriately.” When asked how she motivates employees in a crisis, she said: “One is being honest. I think people are smart and they’re going to sense if you’re BS’ing them a mile away. Don’t try to sugarcoat things.”

Barra also described the “war on technical talent” and the challenges GM faces in attracting workers. GM is competing against companies such as Pixar for digital sculptors, for example.

Barra said it’s important to talk to girls in middle school about STEM — science, technology, engineering and math careers, and to encourage youth to enter technical fields.

Others slated to speak Tuesday at the Forbes conference include Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder; Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans; Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google; and Steve Forbes, chairman and editor of Forbes Media.

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