Three Lessons From Mary T. Barra’s Crisis at GM

General Motors' new chief is navigating a massive recall and questions about her leadership. There are good takeaways for leaders from her response thus far.

For people like myself who write on leadership, there’s no more compelling story right now than Mary T. Barra’s brand-new tenure at General Motors. Since being named CEO of GM in January, she’s been discussed as an exemplar of the Lean In movement (complete with Vanity Fair photo shoot) and steward of a company still newly out of bankruptcy. Those two angles alone would be enough to fill a book, assuming Barra stayed in charge for a while.

But of course her story is now much more complicated: She has to lead GM through a massive recall (1.6 million vehicles) involving an ignition-switch problem that people within the company knew about for years but which landed on Barra’s desk just before she moved into the corner office.

Barra and GM are still early into their response to the crisis, and there’s plenty about the recall that isn’t known. (She’s scheduled to testify before Congress on the recall next month.)  But her actions thus far provide a few useful lessons about what’s needed from leaders at difficult times, and how new leaders  can establish their authority.

1. Take ownership, calmly. Since the announcement of the recall last month, there was plenty of clamoring for Barra to speak up fast and make big changes. But she waited until last week to publicly address the recall problem with reporters. When she did speak, though, she addressed questions thoroughly and avoided blame-shifting. She was candid about the investigation being ongoing without appearing deflective (or defensive). Some of this may simply speak to Barra’s PR savvy rather than leadership per se, but there’s no question now of where the buck stops with the problem. As a PR expert told the New York Times, “She’s owning it. She will not be able to distance herself from it. It’s now hers.”

2. Recognize the human angle. The recall is not simply some bad news for GM’s bottom line—it’s a serious safety issue that’s been linked to a dozen deaths. And Barra has taken care to frame the issue in human terms. Meeting with GM’s top safety engineers during the crisis, she said, one question she asked was, “Would you let your wife drive this car?” Elsewhere, she’s said, “As a member of the GM family and as a mom with a family of my own, this really hits home for me.”

Pundits can and will argue over whether these gestures are facile and exploitative. For now, let’s say that at the very least Barra recognizes that transparency is essential both for responding to this crisis and keeping GM stable in general, and that acknowledging the personal aspects of the issue is a meaningful part of transparency.

3. Recognize the corporate-culture angle. All that said, Barra still has a major corporation to run, and one in an industry whose business model has required a thorough overhaul in the past few years. In some ways, the recall crisis is an opportunity for Barra to justify changes to how GM is run. Early reports suggest she favors a more collaborative leadership style, a no-brainer for many organizations but a radical shift from GM’s famously bureaucratic structure. Barra’s early response involved a bit of silo-busting; rather than making the recall one department’s responsibility, she pulled in execs from different parts of GM and gave them each parts of the recall response to own.

Last week my colleague Rob Stott discussed a new study that suggests the corporate CEO is more important than ever. And executive coach Jean Frankel told Stott that association leaders need the same skills that Barra is modeling in a crisis: “[make] sure you’re ready for the challenge by not only building up your own capabilities, but having excellent relationships with all levels of members, having an outstanding staff, implementing an effective performance-management system, and knowing yourself.”

What skills are most essential for CEOs to have in a crisis? Share your thoughts in the comments.

( John F. Martin/General Motors)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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