By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. The PR offensive orchestrated on GM CEO Mary Barra’s behalf by GM’s PR handlers continues on unabated this week with “roundtable” interviews given to the local media and other entities in an attempt at getting Ms. Barra’s message out about the definitive change going on within GM.
And what is that message, exactly?
That Mary Barra is, candidly, encouraging the top 300 global executives who aren’t happy and who don’t agree with her plan to shake GM out of its perennial three steps forward and five back dance of mediocrity, to move on. As reported by David Shepardson and Melissa Burden in The Detroit News, GM's CEO had this to say:
"If you don't believe in this plan, then you clearly have other things you could do. And please do so, because the task is hard enough if we all are aligned — and if we're not, it will be even more difficult. If you believe there is a different strategy, there's probably some company you can go work at and execute what you think is right. ... The conversation's not even hard, because why would you want to be here if you don't believe in where we're headed or you don't believe we're taking the right steps?"
All eminently logical, I’d say. Yes, why not leave if you don’t believe in the mission?
"You are not really being nice if you don't say the truth in the meeting and you say it behind someone's back later. I think we just have to get candid," Barra continued, saying she wants employees to be accountable and drive for results, as The News reported. "This is not a company of best efforts. It's got to be a company, if you say you are going to do something, get it done."
Barra added: "There's only so much time where you can say 'ya, ya' and it doesn't get done, and that's where the accountability piece comes in. It isn't best efforts or it isn't explaining why the dog ate your homework." She continued: "My God, you're a senior executive. You could do other things. Why — life is too short — stay and do something you don't believe in?"
Why indeed. Life is too short, especially when you’re unhappy with your professional situation which, I imagine, applies to at least half of the senior leadership at GM. As I said, it all makes such perfect sense that to argue with the refreshing logic of Barra’s words is both futile and just plain stupid. A fool’s errand, in fact.
But - and there’s always a “but” in this business – if only it were that easy. Mary Barra, Dan Ammann and Mark Reuss are tasked with so much more than encouraging top executives who aren’t happy to seek greener pastures elsewhere. Although it would be nice to be able to flip a switch and watch wave after wave of disgruntled executives exit the building - sort of like Lester Burnham in American Beauty - the reality is much different.
The reality is that if you’re a top performer, the chances of you being able to jump ship and land an equal or better position in this town is far from automatic, in fact it’s extremely difficult. But I am going to leave that discussion aside for now, because I want to address this whole “being candid” business.
Candidly speaking? GM is still a mess. And this has nothing to do with the ignition interlock recall disaster, either.
Purging mediocrity is a noble quest by Barra, but the company is rife with that "go along to get along" mentality, and making earnest pronouncements and being candid about how things will be different from this point forward is not going to change that.
Yes, the True Believers in Design, Engineering and Product Development do outstanding work. As I’ve said repeatedly the company has the best product portfolio in its history, with an impressive array of models across almost every segment in the market. But that’s the lone shining aspect of the “new” GM.
The sad reality for Barra & Co. is that although The True Believers are the cream of the crop of the company, they can't hope to outweigh the sheer inertia of the vast gray middle, where doing things "just good enough" isn't just an intermittent pastime, it's part of the constant thrum of mediocrity that permeates the company.
This battle between The True Believers and the moribund practitioners of Good Enough has been going on for decades within GM. And Barra is right and smart to grasp the gravity of the situation. And even though I wholeheartedly agree with her and applaud her mission to fundamentally alter the company and set out on a course correction that will define GM's future, when all is said and done, the proof will be in the products and the execution of those products.
What does that mean? That means that there are no allowances for screw-ups or do-overs, like what happened with the current Chevy Silverado pickup. And the unfortunate reality is that as good as GM’s True Believers are they aren’t infallible, which is why a rush is on to completely overhaul the Silverado's predictably conservative aura as you read this. Barra & Co. cannot afford those kinds of mistakes going forward, no matter what the segment. (At the same time, the new Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade are flying off of the dealer lots. That three steps forward and five back dance of mediocrity? It seems to rear its ugly head at the most inopportune times at GM, doesn’t it?)
The proof, too, will be in an engaged, transformed and newly energized dealer body, one that faces the gigantic task of reversing a mind-numbingly disastrous image that has been burnished into the American consumer consciousness for decades, punctuated by the nastiness of the cataclysmic ignition recall disaster that lingers over the company like a bad hangover.
And the proof will be if GM, as a company, starts acting like a marketing powerhouse instead of a marketing afterthought. One of the biggest marketers in the world can't continue to look only intermittently smart, which too often has been GM's M.O. I continue to think Barra & Co. doesn't believe in marketing enough to warrant a re-think as to how they approach it. There are too many GM spots out there that are heavy on the "wince" factor, and it's simply inexcusable.
Make no mistake, none of this stuff is easy and it is proving to be exceedingly difficult for Barra and her team to make serious headway.
It doesn't help matters much that as a corporate entity, the lingering impression given by GM since the bankruptcy is that it has only intermittently focused on what's really important. The Akerson Reign of Terror set the company back immeasurably and despite Barra's protestations otherwise, the company still seems to be, for the most part, reacting instead of trying to get out ahead of the churning realities roiling this market.
One more thing: I wasn't impressed in the least that Barra went out of her way to say that GM was going to solve its problems on its own, that they didn’t need outside help. Really? In my experience the moment a car company decides that it has all the answers or that all the brilliance it needs can be found internally, is the moment it closes its thinking to outside perspectives. GM can't exactly fall back on a thread of sustained decision-making excellence, can it?
I'm all for the candid talk from Mary Barra, but unfortunately talk is painfully cheap at this point.
Sustained product excellence and serious market share inroads - with profitability - are the only things that matter for GM at this juncture.
And that's the High-Octane Truth for this week.