What the heck is going on at GM?April 2, 2014
The new CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra, is having a difficult week. Congress has taken an interest in the alleged ignition switch problems in GM cars that reportedly have been linked to over thirty accidents and thirteen deaths. Ms. Barra has been testifying, and she’s getting tough questions from some very angry legislators.
Trouble is, she may not have many good answers. According to news reports, management at the “old” GM may have known for over a decade that the switches were dangerous, but chose not to recall them to keep costs down. A GM engineer has been accused of lying when he claimed that he hadn’t signed off on changes to the switch design. Senator Claire McCaskill reportedly opined that even the “new” GM waited nine months before recalling potentially dangerous vehicles. Ms. Barra may be committed to customer safety and high-integrity management, but I question whether her subordinates share her values or even keep her fully informed.
Whenever charges of inteptitude or corruption are directed at a company that’s had a recent turnover in management, I find myself wondering whether it’s fair to hold new leaders responsible for the sins of their predecessors. I’m not talking about legal liability – if GM’s products injured people, GM has to pay for it. My concern is more with the ethics of such situations. Ms. Barra strikes me as a decent person who’ll do what she can to fix the mess she inherited. Unfortunately, though, even as CEO she’s only one person, and if her management team doesn’t tell her the truth and support her efforts to reform company culture, she’s likely to fail.
Self-righteous indignation is Congress’ preferred tone these days, and that’s unfortunate. Politicians like to posture and score points to impress their voters. I can understand their impulse to scold Mary Barra as the representative of a company that seems to have put profit ahead of customer safety, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. I just hope they’ll remember, in this sorry situation, that Mary Barra probably also represents GM’s best opportunity to turn things around.
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