Brian Dickerson: Barra confesses lack of values, not bad apples, led GM to crisis
April 6, 2014 |
Once upon a time, leaders were obliged to fall on their swords whenever someone under their command screwed up big time. Nowadays, we just haul them before congressional subcommittees.
Underestimating the significance of such a public inquisition can be humbling. Just ask tobacco executives who tried to stonewall their way through a hostile congressional probe in 1994, then ended up paying one of the largest legal penalties in corporate history.
But even when the evidence of wrongdoing is overwhelming, leaders who are prepared to endure the indignation of grandstanding lawmakers in respectful silence are typically permitted to leave with their professional reputations intact.
The key to redemption is the now-familiar script in which the executive under fire acknowledges personal responsibility on some vague, theoretical level while fixing criminal and moral culpability on the actions of a few bad apples somewhere down the chain of command.
Banking and brokerage executives adhered to that script, more or less successfully, after the 2008 financial meltdown. So, more recently, has New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, although the subordinates he has scapegoated may yet claim their revenge.
Which makes General Motors CEO Mary Barra’s performances in last week’s back-to-back hearings before the House and Senate all the more noteworthy.
■ Related: GM CEO Mary Barra acknowledges engineer may have lied about ignition switch
■ Related: GM's Mary Barra goes on defense under barrage of Senate questioning
Questioning the mission
If ever a leader confronted by scandal had plausible deniability, it’s Barra. She had been on the job as GM’s leader for scarcely two weeks before subordinates ordered an initial recall of 800,000 cars equipped with a faulty ignition switch that has been linked to at least 13 deaths.
■ Related: General Motors adds 1.7 million more vehicles to recall list
■ Interactive time line: General Motors ignition switch recall
But instead of quarantining the cause of the ignition fiasco in some distant corner of GM bureaucracy, Barra traced the problem to a cultural dysfunction that she said had pervaded the entire organization.
“We had more of a cost culture,” she said, stressing repeatedly that GM was “changing to a customer culture that focuses on safety and quality.”
The treatment, she emphasized, was well under way, buttressed by changes in training and protocol at every level of the company. Still, her diagnosis was startling: GM’s crisis had emerged not from the errors of a few errant bureaucrats, but from a company-wide failure of character.
■ Related: GM CEO Mary Barra: Poor decisions in past do not reflect the GM of today
The hollow mantra
Barra’s congressional interrogators were skeptical. “Isn’t it true that throughout its corporate history, GM has represented to the driving public that safety has always been the No. 1 priority?” asked Rep. Bruce Braley, a fourth-term Democrat from Iowa.
Braley, who served as president of the Iowa Trial Lawyer’s Association before winning election to his state’s congressional delegation, produced a promotional screwdriver that he said had been distributed by the automaker’s dealers in 1994. He read the slogan embossed on its barrel: “Safety comes first at GM.”
He allowed the cross-examiner’s time-honoredcoup de grace — Were you lying then? Or are you lying now? — to hang unspoken in the charged hearing room.
But Barra answered it just the same.
“I can’t speak to statements that were made in the past,” she said, adding that she had never seen the screwdriver in Braley’s hand. “All I can say is the way we’re working now, the training that we’ve done — we’ve changed our core values.”
It’s dangerous for any CEO to utter words like that unless she’s prepared to enforce them. It’s even more dangerous to declare flatly — some would say absurdly — that cost will never again be a factor in deciding whether to replace a faulty GM part or product that jeopardizes customer safety.
And unless every ambitious junior engineer gets the message, Barra’s pronouncements may one day sound as ironic, and as nakedly insincere, as the slogan on Braley’s screwdriver.
But no slogan becomes a core value until someone in power stakes her professional life on it. And now Barra has.
Give GM’s new CEO that much: In a world that esteems corporate leaders more for containing scandal than for confessing error, she’s set a new standard for candor.
Maybe Barra has no choice. Maybe she is grandstanding. too.
But if I worked for General Motors right now, I don’t think I’d call her bluff.http://www.freep.com/article/20140406/COL04/304060055/Brian-Dickerson-Barra-confesses-lack-of-values-not-bad-apples-led-GM-to-crisis