GM works with Stanford to train execs, change culture

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

General Motors Co., working to transform the company culture through its leaders, has partnered with Stanford University to further hone the leadership styles and skills of the carmaker’s executives seen as having the highest potential

The year-long Transformational Leadership program with the California university is just one aspect of a revamped training development program for GM’s 74,000 salaried employees across the globe.

Developing executive talent to guide the Detroit automaker in a changing auto industry becomes even more important as executives retire and the company hires new employees. Nearly 40 percent of the salaried workforce has worked at GM for five years. The company could see one-third of its salaried employees retire within the next five years, said John Quattrone, the company’s senior vice president of global human resources.

GM says its new training programs, including the one with Stanford, are key in its work to spur change — breaking down a once-bureaucratic and siloed culture — through the behaviors of its most senior leaders.

“If we behave well with each other, that drives this company forward,” said Quattrone, one of the automaker’s most senior executives. “Then the people that work for us and the people who work for them will see that, they’ll see that demonstration and they will obviously emulate that and they will behave the way that we all do.”

GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra, two years into leading the company, devotes a lot of time working with her executive team on how the group behaves with each other, focusing on being accountable, raising issues and being forthright, Quattrone said. The team — including Barra — receives critiques on their behaviors and how they could handle situations better.

It was Barra’s longtime relationship with Stanford that started the development of the university program.

Barra, 54, was selected in 1988 for a GM fellowship. That allowed her to take time off from GM to earn her MBA from Stanford in 1990. Barra is a member of the university’s board of trustees and the Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council.

“The mindset behind this program is very much around how can we start to challenge ourselves to think like a startup, but leverage the global scale of the footprint of the company that we have,” said Michael Arena, GM’s global director of talent and development who worked closely with Stanford for about a year to design the training program to meet the automaker’s needs.

One class of 35 senior and high-potential executives, including Pamela Fletcher, GM’s executive chief engineer for electrified vehicles, completed the first program in the fall. A second program with another 35 executives started in fall and will wrap up this summer.

Fletcher and other company leaders such as Steve Kiefer, vice president of global purchasing and supply chain and Steve Hill, vice president of U.S. sales and service, met over five weeks, splitting time in Detroit, Germany, China and Stanford.

“It was a great program from the standpoint there’s 34 other people that I know a lot better than I did before who are also senior leaders in the company,” said Fletcher. She said Transformational Leadership increased her confidence and gave her tools to use as she leads groups in decisions. “And to me that’s just invaluable to have those relationships. For when the time comes you’ve got to work together to solve something difficult, you know there’s a portion (of leaders) that you already know very well and can work with.”

Barra has relied on similar relationships she made and developed years ago with other GM leaders through the company’s executive training programs.

Fletcher said her group spent a lot of time talking about business cultures and the importance of analytical thinking. They met with start-up companies and entrepreneurs.

The group of executives — some as young as in their 30s, from different parts of the globe and different business functions — were divided into five teams, each tasked to come up with solutions to real GM business issues. Fletcher was part of the urban mobility team, which pitched ideas on the emerging issue to Barra and senior executives last summer.

Fletcher could not say what her group’s ideas included, but Arena and Quattrone said ideas and proposals from the first executive teams are being implemented.

Arena said ideas presented were “bolder, definitely more provocative” following the training.


“We wanted to really challenge ourselves to start thinking about the art of what’s possible as opposed to starting with ‘no,’” he said. “What would it look like if we start with ‘yes’? Where else to learn (that) than to go into the center of Silicon Valley and to partner with the institution that helped to shape and support those mindsets.”

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