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Howes: Barra fights old battles, bad habits

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

For someone who says she hates the word "culture," General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra spends a lot of time talking about it.

She told Fortune's 100 Most Powerful Women Summit this week she's "on a mission to break down silos." She tells her people to do the right thing, and spent a leadership meeting seeking consensus on the five words they'll rally around — the two most important being candor and what she termed "tenacity to face the challenges."

But we've heard it all before.

From her predecessor, Dan Akerson, who used a final interview with The Detroit News last December to declare GM's culture change real. From the two who preceded him after GM's historic bankruptcy, inheritors of an archetypal bureaucracy scarred by the humiliation of bankruptcy and federal oversight.

From Rick Wagoner, who used interlocking strategy boards and matrixed responsibility to drive accountability and product excellence that never seemed to arrive. And from his mentor, Jack Smith, who led the savvy globalization of GM following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union but couldn't lead the cultural revolution at home he knew to be necessary.

Now comes Barra, as much a product of the Old GM as Wagoner, Smith and Fritz Henderson. She is vowing radical change to a behavioral world view neither her predecessors, nor collapsing market share, nor Chapter 11, nor partial government control could deliver.

OK. How will we know she's succeeding? Investors and analysts, dealers and customers, competitors and suppliers, the news media and interested government officials — none of them has an inside seat to judge whether the rhetoric in the aftermath of GM's ignition-switch debacle will match reality.

What they do have is the benefit of experience, a long accumulation of unkept promises, underperforming brands and barely accountable executives. There are flashes of product brilliance, richer cash flow and a solid balance sheet, to be sure, but the ignition-switch mess and the accompanying investigation only rekindled memories of an Old GM that is proving more enduring than many hoped.

Given the past, skepticism is not only warranted; it's required. The new boss is not the same as the old bosses in that she shows a necessary willingness to air the uglier, more absurd sides of GM's dysfunction before employees, congressional committees, business conferences and the news media.

She cops to the "GM nod" and the "GM shrug," passive-aggressive responses that amount to collective shirking of responsibility. She says she's been "too nice," an admirable trait in a co-worker maybe but not in the CEO of a troubled industrial behemoth struggling for both relevance and, until recently, profitability.

Inside GM, one ranking executive tells me, some describe Barra as having "a heart of gold with a spine of steel." To hear the boss tell it, she's concluded she needs to lead with a little less of the former and more of the latter if GM is to make a meaningful transition from 20th-century basket case to contemporary global player.

She's right. One of the more ironic pieces of GM's inexorable slide to the brink of collapse is that the men who presided nobly over decline generally were nice guys. Too often, they tolerated underperformance in critical pieces of the business instead of moving against longtime colleagues (see Mike Burns in GM-Europe under Wagoner, for example).

Barra's also right when she says that the example — the doing — begins with the 17-member Executive Leadership Team and its willingness to regularly demonstrate the trust, accountability and a desire to win (an Old GM totem). It continues with who is promoted and how they're compensated.

Add one more: the real meaning of leadership. The difference between bosses and leaders is bosses tell their people what to do, send them off, watch from afar whether they do it and then judge accordingly. Leaders show their people what to do by doing it themselves, regularly.

GM is at a crucial inflection point in the first decade of its second century. It survived bankruptcy, restructuring and five CEOs in as many years; it has a restocked board of directors and a new leadership team; it has what it calls "a fortress balance sheet," total automotive liquidity of $38.8 billion and a stocked product pipeline.

What GM lacks, as Barra's "break-down-silos" riff and the fall-out from the ignition-switch scandal implies, is the kind of cohesion found on a winning team, from the Ford Motor Co. of recently departed Alan Mulally to the Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks.

It can be created, beginning with the candor and accountability Barra says she wants but must prove the automaker can produce regularly — for all to see.


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