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General Motors’ CEO on How to Handle a Crisis Like a Pro

General Motors’ CEO on How to Handle a Crisis Like a Pro


  • Why GM’s Mary Barra instituted a two-word dress code policy
  • How she dealt with a deadly nationwide crisis
  • What she looks for in a new hire

Mary Barra is the Chairman and CEO of General Motors, where she envisions a world with zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero traffic congestion. Adam Grant is an organizational psychologist, the top-rated professor at Wharton, and the #1 bestselling author of Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. He recently hosted Mary at the Wharton People Analytics Conference, where they discussed the power of data, how to transform company culture, and what it means to stick to your values—even when it’s hard.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full version, click the video below.

Adam: You began at General Motors as an 18-year-old intern. Now, you’re the CEO of a Fortune 7 company. How in the world did that happen?

Mary: One of the benefits when you work for a large company is that there’s so many different things you can do. So early in my career, I worked in a plant as an engineer. I was also the executive assistant to the chairman and the vice chair. Then I was a plant manager, then off to HR, and then to product development.

I’ve been given a lot of opportunities, but a lot of those opportunities were from my interest in people. And I worked for a leader who said, “You have to win their hearts and minds.” [It’s crucial to] focus on engaging and empowering people, and making sure they know how they’re contributing.

Adam: I love that message. What was it that opened your eyes to the importance of people for driving work and organizations?

Mary: Well, the person who shared that with me was actually running our manufacturing operations. When you think about people who are working on an assembly line, we’re counting on them to do something potentially 60 times an hour, with high quality. How do you motivate them, and help them make that connection to the customer? Make that connection to quality, make that connection to how it supports the vision of the company? That really resonated with me, because my very first job as a co-op student was on the line. So I wanted that person to feel valued and empowered.

Adam: I have to ask you about the dress code story. How did that happen?

Mary: Well, we were just coming out of the restructuring, and a lot gets set aside when you’re going through a restructure and bankruptcy process. It was an opportunity, though, to define the culture that we wanted. And so I said, “Okay, let’s do the dress code. It’s, ‘Dress appropriately.’ Two words—that’s all we want.”

I had this manager write me this scathing email [that said], “You need to put out a better dress code policy. This is not enough.” And so I called him. It turned out that occasionally, that department had to deal with government officials, and he was worried that if they were in jeans or something, that wouldn’t be appropriate. I said, “Okay, well what is your responsibility to the company?” I established that he was important for a pretty important part of the company, with a multi-million dollar budget.

“If you can’t solve a problem, the best time to raise it is soon as you know it.”

He called me back two weeks later and said, “I talked to my team. We brainstormed, and agreed that the four people that occasionally need to meet with government officials will have a pair of dress pants in their locker.” Problem solved.

And so to me, the big “a-ha” was that you need to make sure your managers are empowered, because if they can’t handle “Dress appropriately,” what other judgment decisions are they not making?

Adam: I want to talk to you about the role of data in the job that you do now. You have your vision attached to data metrics—you talk about zero crashes and zero emissions. How did you set those targets, and how do you think about measuring against them when zero is a number that’s almost impossible to hit?

Mary: I think it makes it really clear where the company’s headed, and when you have 180,000 people, you need to be clear that everybody knows the direction.

So, say zero crashes—when we look at autonomous vehicles, we believe that they’re a key ingredient in making travel safer. Right now, in the United States alone, 40,000 people lose their lives due to traffic accidents [every year], and 90% of them have a human error component to them. So if we can use autonomous driving, we can dramatically reduce those incidents, and I believe that over time, we should aspire to zero.

From an emissions perspective, if you have electric vehicles, you really can get to a zero-emission vehicle. And it will take different designs of cities, but I really believe we can get to a place of zero [traffic] congestion. We look at all of this as General Motors’ responsibility, and with a very strong focus on the customer. The customer is focused on safety, most customers care about the environment, and no one likes to waste time in congestion. So it’s a very customer-focused, aspirational goal, but we believe we have the technology. And working with the right partners, we can accomplish it.


Adam: One of the interesting things you’ve done at General Motors is map the social networks inside the company to see who’s talking to whom, who’s influencing whom. A lot of the leaders I work with are afraid to do that, because they’re worried that they might find out that they promoted the wrong person, or that they’ve been leading ineffectively. How do you overcome those obstacles?

Mary: I subscribe to [the belief that] everything can be made better, so if there’s data available, even though I may not like what it tells me, I want to have it. Say I have the wrong person in a job—well, maybe there’s a job they’re better suited to. If you don’t have the right person in the job, it doesn’t make them a bad person—it’s just not a good fit.

And a lot of times they’re relieved. Because imagine you’re in a job, and everyone around you is like, “Oh, this person is not doing well.” They know. And how hard is that, to go to work every day knowing you’re not doing your best? And so seeing people leave or move to a different place in the company, and succeed—I find very rewarding. So if you [believe that] everything can be made better, data helps us do that.

Adam: So let’s say I report to you, and I finish an analysis that says somebody that you think is really effective is not performing as well as you think. How do you want me to bring that to you? Should I just say, “Hey, I have some data. Do you want to see them?”

Mary: Absolutely. With my team members, if I know it’s something they’re not going to want to hear, I start with, “You know, you’re probably not going to like this.” And then they’re like, “Okay. I’ve got the right mindset. Let’s talk about it.” So I think it’s the way you have the conversation [and communicating that] you believe in them and you want them to be their best.

I tell the whole employee base, “If you can’t solve a problem, the best time to raise it is soon as you know it.” Because the longer it goes, the bigger it gets. I mean, how many of us know a problem that goes away on its own? That’s very rare.

Adam: I want to ask you about crisis management. I think everyone’s familiar with the ignition switch crisis that you faced, and in 2014, you were named Crisis Manager of the Year for the way that you handled that. How did you [do it]?

“It’s really easy to live your values when everything’s going well. It’s really hard when everyone’s looking at you, and it’s dramatically impacting your financial results.”

Mary: Well, we immediately formed a small team. And as we met every day, we quickly defined guiding principles based on our values: we’re going to do everything possible for the customer, we’re going to be transparent, and we’re going to do everything in our power to make sure this never happens again. That guided us every step of the way.

As we looked back at what happened, the issues that caused the 2014 crisis were actually engineered and designed in the early 2000s. Going back and really understanding that, we’ve made tremendous changes to the way we engineer vehicles, the way we test and do safety. So [it’s about] having that focus, understanding the seriousness of the situation, and being transparent.

I would also say follow your gut. You get advice from everyone, and they conflict. And I spent a lot of sleepless nights saying, “This just doesn’t feel right. No, we’re going to say we’re sorry. We’re going to do an independent investigation. We’re going to release the independent investigation.” If the team is aligned and you have values, and you just keep going back to that through the twists and turns of the crisis, it guides you on what to do.

[I have] two big learnings from what I went through. [One is that] I’m much more impatient than I used to be—if there’s a problem, we’ve got to fix it. [I say,] “What can I do so that you can fix this issue sooner? Can we have the technology be better? Can we provide this feature that creates value?” [Impatience] is not always a negative thing.

Then the other thing—and I’m proud because I think it’s [the case throughout] the company—is that we’re going to do the right thing, even when it’s hard. Because it’s really easy to live your values when everything’s going well. It’s really hard when everyone’s looking at you, and it’s dramatically impacting your financial results. But if every employee knows you’re going to do the right thing, even when it’s hard, that is so important.

Adam: When we first met, you were beginning to put a big focus on strengthening the safety culture in the follow up of handling this crisis. What are the changes that you made, and what do you think has moved the needle the most on culture?


Mary: I think living the values [made a big difference]. In late 2014, we had a meeting with our top 300 leaders, and before everybody came to the meeting, we asked them, “If you could change one behavior in the company, what would you change?” 300 responses came in, and it boiled down to about five things.

So we met for the day, and we really had a dialogue of, “Do we accept that these are things we should do?” We left that day saying, “Tomorrow, when we go to work, we are going to start demonstrating these behaviors.” My president and I stood up in front and said, “If you see us not living these behaviors, call us out. Do it respectfully, but call us out.”

Because at that point, there [had been] so much talk about General Motors culture, and how it wasn’t good. To me, culture is the stories you tell about what happens at a company, organization, family, or country. And I was like, “How do I work on culture?” What I could do every day is change how I behave. And we started to see change that next day.

I believe that it was the senior leadership infusing these behaviors into the company that generated the record performance we had in ’15, ’16, and ’17. And we’re still at it. We now have seven formal behaviors that we’ve rolled out to the whole company, but what are the leadership behaviors? What’s our additional responsibility, and behaviors we need to demonstrate? We’re working on that now.

And I’m not sitting in a room saying, “Here’s what they are.” I’m actually engaging [the senior leadership] team to say, “Let’s write these together.” I fully, strongly believe that behaviors set your culture, and that what you do every day sets your culture. You can’t pretend to have a culture that’s different from what you’re really doing.

Adam: One thing that’s clear in that story is how much you love to ask questions. And this is a growing topic of emphasis in management research, where we see that question-asking is a critical but often neglected behavior of leaders. I think you’re the opposite of that—many times I’ve seen you gather a group of junior people in the room, and they’re there to learn from you, but you are firing away with lots of things you want to learn about. Do you have favorite questions that you ask when it comes to shaping culture, or engaging and motivating employees?

“You can’t pretend to have a culture that’s different from what you’re really doing.”

Mary: I think the most important [thing] is getting feedback from employees. Early in my career, I was making a presentation to the senior staff, and the CFO stepped out afterward and said, “Did you get what you needed from our response?” And I was somewhat stunned. I was like, “Wow, he wants to know if I got what I needed from that conversation.” In my mind, I was just presenting to the senior team.

That was really impactful for me. At the end of a meeting or presentation, asking that person, “Did you get what you need? Is there anything else you need to go forward?” is vitally important. And getting their opinion. So often we have people come to us and present a bunch of data [without asking them,] “Well, what do you think?” And they’re the closest to it!

Adam: The Lean In team launched a MentorHer movement saying, “Look, there are way too many men who will go out to dinner with their male mentees, but they won’t do that with their female mentees.” That’s not to say you have to go out to dinner with a woman, but if you’re not going to do it with women, you shouldn’t do it with men either, because that’s not fair.

You brought your voice into that movement, but you also had a dialogue across General Motors. What was your message about mentoring women?

Mary: There’s no perfect solution, so you’ve just got to get people past the discomfort and make everyone aware. I mean, I’ve had so many mentors in my 38-year career. Without those mentors, many of [whom] have been men, I wouldn’t be sitting here as the CEO of General Motors today.

The #MeToo movement is important, because what’s happening is not acceptable, and people will now listen and believe and take action. But you don’t want to have this other negative outcome [of men not mentoring women]. Just having people talk about it is taking us to a better place.

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