Changing a Culture Amid Constant Challenge

When Mary Barra stepped into the role of CHRO at General Motors back in 2009, one of the first things she set out to change was the giant automaker’s 10-page dress code policy. Intent on shaking up the notoriously stodgy culture at GM, which only recently had emerged from bankruptcy, Barra reduced the multi-page policy down to two words: “Dress appropriately.”

Not everyone was happy with the new policy, Barra told Wharton School Professor Adam Grant during a Q&A at Wharton’s People Analytics Conference, held late last week at Philadelphia’s Hyatt at the Bellevue. In fact, one of the biggest sources of push-back was, ironically enough, HR itself.

“They were concerned that, for example, employees would show up wearing T-shirts with inappropriate slogans or images,” she told Grant. One manager was worried that employees would show up to important meetings wearing jeans, she said.

Barra said she called the manager up and asked him to elaborate on his concerns. The manager brainstormed with his employees to come up with a solution: Employees would keep dress clothes in their lockers at work just in case important officials showed up for a meeting. Barra said the episode served as an “a-ha! moment” for one of her signature moves since becoming CEO of GM back in 2014: empowering managers to make decisions on their own without relying on cumbersome policies. “If they couldn’t handle dress codes on their own, then what else couldn’t they handle?” she said.

Barra, an engineer who began her career at GM and served in a variety of roles there, said she very much enjoyed her time as the carmaker’s HR leader. “It was so rewarding,” she told Grant. “You’re driving value every day.”

Being in HR tied directly into one of Barra’s greatest passions, she said: How do you motivate people whose jobs involve repetitive tasks — such as assembly line work — and help them make the connection between their everyday work and customer satisfaction and supporting the company? “That’s always interested me,” she said.

Barra’s tenure as CEO of GM has included its share of challenges, not least of which was the faulty ignition-switch debacle which came to a head shortly after Barra got the top job in 2014, when the company announced a recall that would ultimately include millions of vehicles equipped with faulty switches that could cause the cars to abruptly lose power while being driven. The crisis was intensified after it became known that GM engineers had been aware of the problem for at least 10 years prior yet the company had delayed implementing a recall, even though it was eventually determined that multiple passenger deaths were linked to the faulty switches. An internal investigation conducted later that year revealed a longstanding pattern within the company of “neglect and incompetence.”

Barra’s successful leadership of the company that year earned her the title “Crisis Manager of the Year” by Fortune magazine. She explained to Grant that, as events unfolded, she resolved to respond to the crisis “with an action plan based on our values of customer service and transparency.”

“You get lots of conflicting advice from lots of sources during times like that, but if you have values and your team’s aligned with them, that guides you on what to do,” Barra said. In the crisis’ wake, she oversaw an effort to reshape GM’s culture to one that emphasizes “always doing the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing.”

GM is also, like most other organizations, trying to determine the best way forward in light of the #Me too movement. Barra told Grant she reached out to him after male managers expressed concern about mentoring individual female subordinates. “By talking to you, I got the courage to go back to my team and talk about the issue without having all the answers,” she said. “Talking openly about this let others know that they weren’t alone in having concerns about this.”

One proposed solution has been group mentoring, in place of one-to-one mentoring. “Group mentoring can be highly effective,” Barra said. “It can be small groups, or even just three people.” However, heightened sensitivity over male and female interactions must not be allowed to overshadow the importance of mentoring, she said.

“I would not be CEO today without the mentors I’ve had, many of whom were male,” said Barra. “As important as MeToo is today, you don’t want to have this negative outcome [of male managers being reluctant to meet one on one with female employees]. You’ve got to encourage people to talk openly about this, it’s very important.”

Grant asked Barra about how the company is using data to make itself more effective. She cited the regular surveys of employees that GM conducts and the importance of making the data actionable so employees would continue to participate in them. She also cited data that’s collected during candidate assessments to help with employee development. “When we hire someone, we use their assessment data to show our leaders ‘Here’s where this person might hit a roadblock in the future’ and they can determine who will mentor that person.”

When Barra herself is interviewing senior-level candidates, she told Grant, she looks for integrity, a passion for the industry and the ability to accomplish goals via influencing rather than hierarchy, “as we’re a matrixed organization.”  During interviews, one of her favorite interview questions is to ask candidates to list three adjectives their current boss would use to describe them, she said. “You can learn a lot by how the person answers that question,” Barra said. “Also, ‘What do you think your weaknesses are?’ ”

One of Grant’s final questions was “What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever been given?’

“One was being told that I shouldn’t work after my first child was born,” said Barra. “Another was, early in my career, a supervisor told me ‘Here’s what a bunch of people who barely know you said about you.’ Feedback has to be credible in order to be effective … . When I felt that the person giving me advice didn’t really care about me, that’s when I discarded it.”

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.