A Few Things to Recall During the Recall

Photo: Sarah Spaulding
Photo: Sarah Spaulding

Poor Mary Barra.

She has been CEO of General Motors for fewer than 60 days, and yet she already confronts a major crisis. The company has had to recall millions of cars over the past few weeks because of a safety defect involving ignition switches.

GM has linked 12 deaths to the recalled cars—but federal regulators have indicated that the number could be more than 300. What’s more, GM reportedly was receiving reports of the problem as far back as 2001.

Few CEOs have faced such major internally induced crises as the one Barra currently confronts at GM,” Jena McGregor noted in the Washington Post.

Barra’s to-do list is now daunting. Not only must she oversee the recall; she must try to do so while improving the fortunes of a company that is better off than it was a few years ago but still in a state of recovery.

McGregor nevertheless sees a potential bright spot for Barra. “If she manages the crisis well—no easy feat for anyone—it will define her career,” McGregor asserted. “It will let her rebuild the culture more than any change in management program or training session ever could.”

Like everyone, Peter Drucker would have been dismayed that GM apparently did nothing about such a serious safety issue for so many years. As we’ve noted, Drucker considered it crucial for an organization to take the lead in anticipating the troubles it might be causing, even when it’s costly, because the alternative is worse. “The public will forgive blindness,” he pointed out in The Age of Discontinuity. “It will not forgive failure to act on one’s own best knowledge.”

Regarding the specific challenges that Barra is up against, Drucker would have surely pointed out that the most effective leaders ask what needs to be done now, regardless of what plans they had coming in.

“These are the people who can look at a situation and say: This is not what I was hired to do or what I expected to do, but this is what the job requires—and then roll up their sleeves and go to work,” Drucker wrote. “This is effective crisis leadership.”

Of course, having the right leader at the right time is also partly a matter of luck. Winston Churchill, Drucker observed, was brilliant in wartime crisis but ineffectual in peacetime. “To every leader there is a season,” was a line Drucker used.

Now we’ll see if it’s Barra’s season.

What do you think is most important for Mary Barra to do in managing the crisis at GM?