Mary Barra’s Staff Engagement Challenge

Mary Barra’s Staff Engagement Challenge

opinion by Graham Bobby

December 1, 2014

I enjoyed a recent extended profile in Time magazine of Mary Barra, the new CEO of General Motors, by Rana Faroohar, linked here (a subscription is required to access the full article)

Why is it that whenever we read profiles of female executives, they are interspersed with lots of copy about family and style choices, whereas these are still rarely mentioned in the case of men? I guess neither Faroohar nor Barra would want it this way, but somehow they pander to readers who still expect it. Change comes slowly in this world.


Barra is an engineer and a lifer at GM, promoted amidst a crisis that threatened the future of the company. The tip of an iceberg of safety product recalls threatened to expose a rotten culture underneath it, where not just safety but also customer focus and personal accountability were subsumed by corporate expectations. With the 2008 bailout fresh in people’s minds, public and political goodwill was going to be wafer thin, and any perceived failure could mean the end for Barra and even for GM.

Barra has had to respond decisively, and be seen to do so, without willfully killing her own lifetime employer nor losing the trust of her new staff. So far she has achieved this balance with deftness and passion, helped by her obvious love of her company, her wide existing industry network inside and outside of GM, and by a commitment to engagement.

The article explained how she has visited plant after plant, engaging with shop floor employees and hosting town hall sessions for staff, listening, showing humility, and emphasizing the culture she aspires for GM, centered around the customer.

While this is truly admirable and I wish her well, I can only wonder at her stamina and at how sustainable this model of engagement is. In trying to achieve the same in a more efficient way, this would be an excellent application of our Synthetron method.

What was she trying to achieve here? As a new CEO, she wanted to understand what her staff were saying and thinking, in all departments and all markets. As she crafted her own key messages, she could benefit from using language that resonated positively as widely as possible. She needed to dig and to listen, and be seen to be listening, to unearth the full extent of the safety failings. Finally, she wanted to demonstrate that speaking up and challenge are good, while slavishly hiding behind managers would no longer be acceptable.

She could do this in person in a couple of locations per week. She could give interviews and write memos, instantly forgotten by most employees. She could create some scapegoats, at a cost to leadership morale. She could create bulletin boards and whistleblower opportunities, likely to be treated with great suspicion by staff long used to a very different culture. All these things are helpful, but all are also slow and frustratingly limited in impact.

Synthetron could certainly have helped, and maybe still could. All of the goals can be addressed via our method, at high speed and low cost. It could not replace the other steps, but it could complement them and amplify their impact. With Synthetron, I suggest that Mary Barra could be a few steps further forward on her long road to a recovering GM.

Most of us are lucky enough not to face challenges as intense as those of Barra. But what company would not wish to know how staff were thinking, utilize resonant language, be able to unearth potential issues early and encourage honest engagement? Who is not interested in high speed, wide reach and low cost, whether to reach staff, consumers or other stakeholders?

– Graham Bobby