For General Motors, is Mary Barra a problem or the solutution?

General Motors CEO Mary Barra may offer the fresh leadership needed to solve the company's recall crisis, but her decades-long career at General Motors raises red flags about her ability to evoke change in the company she now leads.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
General Motors CEO Mary Barra testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on April 2. Evans and Foster argue that Barra's long history with GM could hamper her in changing the company's culture.

As a new CEO with just a few weeks behind her, Mary Barra might offer the fresh leadership needed to solve General Motors’ recall crisis, but since she began her ascendance to the CEO’s office as a twenty year old intern, her lifer status raises red flags about her ability to evoke change in the company she now leads.

Every company has a “way”, whether or not it has been articulated and made as public as The Toyota Way and The IBM Way. We can only speculate about how much of whatever passes as “The GM Way” Barra has internalized, but surely she is a product of it. This presents a potential problem because, clearly, something at GM has to change and catalyzing change in others requires that you are comfortable with changing yourself first.

Many leaders view change as something that they do to others, but an important leadership moment occurs when a leader must acknowledge that he or she is part of the problem. And being part of the problem can be as subtle as a sly wink signaling agreement that a secret ought to be made of a serious issue.

It is not easy to accept the possibility that some of our most cherished and entrenched beliefs about how the world works, or about our company’s recipe for success, may be wrong. However, genuine transformation and the ability to continually learn and adapt (and deal with a crisis) only comes when people open themselves up to the possibility that they themselves will need to alter their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

That kind of learning occurs when we can recognize the mental model we are using and challenge its validity, and when we can see the walls of whatever box we happen to be in at the time for what it is, an artificial boundary to our thinking. ”Thinking outside the box" is actually not possible for a human being. You can think inside a different box or a bigger box, but there’s always a box, and its walls represent the limits of the mental model – the “way” – that you use to make sense of a given situation.

It has been suggested elsewhere that GM’s predicament offers Mary Barra a unique opportunity to evaluate her management team. It is also a unique opportunity to evaluate herself, and especially to examine how she has been, and maybe continues to be, part of whatever aspect of the GM way that spawned the current crisis. If she cannot or does not do that necessary work, there is little chance of her effecting the kind of change needed at GM in order to manage the current crisis and avoid others in the future.

By Henry Evans and Colm Foster, coauthors of Step Up: Lead in Six Moments that Matter (Jossey-Bass). Henry is the founder and Managing Partner for Dynamic Results, LLC, and has over 10,000 hours of experience coaching leaders.  He is the author of a previous book Winning with Accountability, a five time CEO, and a former Chairman for Vistage, the world's largest organization of CEOs with 8000 members in fifteen countries. He lives in the Bay Area. Colm Foster, Ph.D.  is an executive coach for Dynamic Results, LLC, and a member of the adjunct faculty of UCD, DCU and the Irish Management Institute. He is a former Finance & Strategy Director for the Irish subsidiary of Diageo plc and lives in Dublin. They both hold titles in competitive martial arts.

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