Mary Barra's Defining Moment: Can GM Become The Next Tylenol?

Apr 2 2014, 4:32pm CDT | by

Mary Barra's Defining Moment: Can GM Become The Next Tylenol?
Photo Credit: Forbes Auto

Leaders rarely get to choose their defining moments. The issues that will eventually define their reputations are most often thrust upon them…and usually those issues are far, far different from what the leaders would have chosen if it were up to them.

And so it is with Mary Barra. Only three months into her CEO stint at General Motors, her defining issue has found her; and it is a crisis that she most certainly did not choose.

When departing CEO Dan Akerson announced why he had recommended Ms. Barra for CEO, he said that she had an uncanny ability to “make order out of chaos.” Today we surely wonder if he had any inkling of just how much chaos there would be in her first 100 days. Let’s hope he did not.

Rewriting the Crisis Playbook

But, beyond crisis and beyond chaos, there is also great opportunity – Ms. Barra has the chance to write the playbook for how to handle a huge corporate crisis in the 21st Century, when news, information, and misinformation travel at the speed of electrons.

The Tylenol Crisis

Whenever you mention business crisis, invariably someone will cite the 1982 Tylenol product poisoning and recall as being the state of the art in how to handle a crisis. But in reality, the Tylenol crisis happened over 30 years ago. And if a company were to do today what Johnson & Johnson did then, the effort would be judged a dismal failure, not best practice.

Why? Because once the tampering was discovered, it took 5 days for the company to institute a recall. During that time they were consumed by fact gathering, internal meetings, and indecision, even though eventually they took a courageous and bold path. Today, if a consumer product goods company were to go silent at the advent of a tampering crisis, they could survive doing so for, oh, possibly 5 hours, but never 5 days. And best practice might even dictate some acknowledgement in at least an hour.

The world just moves too fast. Trust is shattered in a blink of an eye, and the public demands quick and decisive action be taken to guard its safety. Any failure to do that will reverberate around the globe in nanoseconds.

So while the world still quotes Tylenol as best practice, business is calling out for a new best practice in terms of crisis management, a new gold standard.

Enter Mary Barra 

This brand-new CEO of a formerly iconic American company, now reputation and bankruptcy-ravaged, has walked into the leadership challenge of a lifetime. Not only the first woman CEO in an infamously male-dominated industry, facing the expected challenge to rebuild the car company and its product line, now she must address the company’s extraordinary dirty laundry, which seemingly has just come to full light.

Many people have died, families have been treated reprehensibly, the facts have been buried or obfuscated, wrong decisions have been made over and over again by executives who apparently just don’t talk to one another, liability is extraordinary, shareholder value at risk, and the breach of consumer trust is almost unprecedented. Plus we still don’t know why this has just come to light, or if Ms. Barra or her predecessors really knew about it.

Yet, she is doing everything right so far.

Perfect Pitch

So far, Ms. Barra has faced every challenge with perfect pitch. She has expressed human emotion and regret first, and then a steely resolve to get to the bottom of what happened. She has taken the helm solidly, calmly, and apparently in total control.

Plus, her appearance on Tuesday in front of Congress was flawless, masterful. It may not have contained as many details as Congress would have liked at this juncture, but with so much riding on her words, she could not afford to have anything less than the full story before she divulges it to the world. There have been enough half truths and wishful thinking out there. It is time for the real story, and the beginnings of real solutions — and like it or not, those do take a little time./>/>

A Woman Leader Handling the Pressure

Moreover, her demeanor during the public spectacle was spot-on from my perspective. Like it or not, all eyes were on her not only about the crisis, but about how a woman leader would handle the pressure publicly.

They say that women leaders are in a “double-bind” in how to behave in leadership roles: too tough, and they are seen as witchy; too deferential and they are seen as milk-toasts, and not strong enough leaders. In other words, they have far less latitude than male leaders to strike the right tone of leadership.

In crisis, the band of acceptable behavior shrinks even further.

I believe Ms. Barra struck exactly the right tone: calm, in control, honestly sympathetic, yet not going to be pushed into a statement she did not want to make. She was unfailingly polite, and seemed dedicated to finding out the truth, and then to addressing it head-on. She did not grandstand nor was she flustered; she did not defer nor did she deflect the criticism, but she did stand up to her questioners when they were not clear, in a way that was neither angry, nor defensive, nor subservient. She took the heat…like a woman.

Yet, we also wanted to see her anger. And the impression I was left with was that her anger and steely resolve were just below the surface, and that they, too, would propel her and the company. Her anger came out when asked whether GM managers purposely did not report the switch to the authorities. Then you could glimpse her resolve: these people would be handled, and action would be taken.

Tale of Two GMs

After all, the tale of two GMs – one old and the new – will only go so far. But the story of how GM fares during and after this immense crisis, under Ms. Barra’s leadership, will be one for all time.

So far, Ms. Barra seems firmly on course to not only embrace her defining moment, but to use it to show us all how it should be done – how a 21st Century leader works honorably and responsibly through a crisis, hopefully not of her making.

It’s a tall order, but I for one think she is the perfect leader for the task.

Mary Barra

 
 
 

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