If you want to know the benefits of an inclusive culture, just look at Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors.
I don’t mean the fact that she’s the highest ranking woman in the auto industry and one of the top ranking executives in the world. Nor that she inspires legions of girls and young women to pursue their dreams. Or that she runs a company that builds great cars and is ushering in the future of how we get around.
Yes, all that is amazing. More amazing is that this is possible due to the power of General Motors culture of diversity and inclusion. The magic of diversity is not just that people are able to build a career and break down barriers. It’s that people find the place where they can do fantastic things and when necessary, do the right thing.
Six years ago Mary Barra did the right thing, and this week, she did it again.
The Most Impossible First Four Months On the Job
Mary Barra took the reins at GM in January, 2014. Just four months later she found herself immersed in a recall scandal that could have easily sunk one of the world’s largest automakers even as it was still recovering from a historic bankruptcy.
The recall and resulting scandal stemmed from a faulty ignition switch installed in 30 million cars that ultimately caused 124 deaths. Upon discovering the problem, it was covered up rather than being fixed, which sadly was typical for automakers at the time (thankfully, things have changed dramatically).
Shortly after Mary became CEO, it became clear that the issue was going to blow up and it threatened the viability of GM. So, she did the right thing, and really, it’s what every mother teaches her children: Apologize, make it right and make sure it doesn’t happen again. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t cheap—billions of dollars in fines, settlements and repairs—but it was what needed to be done.
Mary was called to testify in front of Congress. As I watched her testimony I wondered how on earth the pressure didn’t kill her. After just four months on the job how could anyone deal with such a damning and massive issue and survive being grilled and lambasted on the Congressional stage?
But she was ready. She was true. She was authentic. She led GM through this with care and concern for doing it right. She unflinchingly (at least to the public eye) made things right, paid the penance and set GM on its course again. And that is the magic of diversity. It allows those who can, who want to, whose souls are built for the journey, rise to the job.
As GM Goes, So Goes the Nation
This saying was for many decades a statement of economic forecast: if things were good for GM, things were good for the country. While that’s somewhat still true, its even more true in terms of diversity. GM’s commitment to developing talent from all sources has resulted in the most diverse automaker in the world.
That is huge, but is it enough? Of course we can all do better. So, once again, Mary brings introspection, deep questions, finding answers and doing the right thing to GM’s journey. She can drive even greater understanding and diversity at GM even if she can’t create that for the entire country. Or can she?
Continuing to Do the Right Thing: A Letter From Mary Barra
There is a Big Difference Between Seeing What’s Wrong and Doing What’s Right…
The recent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor astonishingly add to the important and unconscionable list of black Americans who have lost their lives based on the color of their skin. I am both impatient and disgusted by the fact that as a nation, we seem to be placated by the passive discussion of “why.” Why does this happen? Why can’t we get to a different place? Why is the response so visceral?
Let’s stop asking “why” and start asking “what.” What are we going to do? In this moment, we each must decide what we can do – individually and collectively – to drive change… meaningful, deliberate change. As one of the largest global companies, there is much we can do.
There comes a time when we are compelled to stop diagnosing what is wrong and start advocating for what is right. And based on our longstanding values, here is what that looks like:
We commit to inclusion – that means creating the conditions where every single human who believes in inclusion is welcome within our walls.
We unequivocally condemn intolerance – that means racism, bigotry, discrimination and any other form of named or unnamed hatred.
We stand up against injustice – that means taking the risk of expressing an unpopular or polarizing point of view, because complacency and complicity sit in the shadow of silence.
This [post] may seem more pointed than many of the other topics that I’ve shared. However, in this moment there is no place for ambiguity.
Putting this in writing is not enough. In addition to affirming the above principles, we are taking immediate action. Effective by the end of this quarter, I am commissioning an Inclusion Advisory Board (IAB) of both internal and external leaders, which I will chair. The initial purpose of the IAB is to consult with SLT, with the longer term goal of inspiring us to be the most inclusive company in the world.
Collectively, and in time, we will be part of the change. For now, my personal commitment is to ensure that the leadership of GM, and by extension, the entire GM family, consistently remains aware of our responsibility to bring awareness to injustice. Because awareness leads to dialogue… dialogue leads to understanding… and understanding leads to change.