Thursday, April 03, 2014

Mary Barra, come on down!

If there’s been a better glass-ceiling story in the last few years than Mary Barra’s, I don’t know whose it might be.

She’s a local Detroit girl.

Her father spent his long working life as a die maker for Pontiac.

She went to General Motors’ Institute, which now goes by another name – Kettering University – but is still a no-nonsense, few-frills school that trains its grads for jobs in the STEM world.

She has a degree in electrical engineering, making her – as a woman – something of an engineering rarity.

She came up through the GM ranks, having started out there as a co-op while at GMI.

She’s a smart cookie: GM sent her off to Stanford to get her MBA.

For all of the above reasons, I was delighted when she was named GM’s CEO – the first woman to run a major car maker.

So, Ms. Barra lands in her new office in the middle of January.

And then, come the end of January, she – metaphorically speaking – decides to open the side door in the mahogany credenza that’s in back of her desk. And what to her wondering eyes did appear but a faulty ignition switch that was rendering a lot of GM cars potentially unsafe at any speed. At least 13 people – many of them young people – someone’s son, someone’s daughter – driving their first car. Something kicky and affordable. Like a Cobalt. (A car that I believe I have rented on occasion. Never again…)

Next thing you know, GM’s recalling 3 million or so vehicles. They’ve hired Ken Feinberg – the Solomon who distributed the compensation pool for the 9-11 attacks, BP oil spill, and Boston Marathon bombing victims – to figure out how to compensate the families of those killed. And Ms. Barra is front-and-center, appearing before a Congressional subcommittee pointedly entitled "The GM Ignition Switch Recall: Why Did It Take So Long?"

It will no doubt take time to unravel this fiasco: who knew what, and when did they know it. Who made the decision that it was more cost-effective to ignore the problem than to fix it – or at least to warn drivers about it: don’t use a keychain laden with tchotchkes; if your car stalls out in the middle of the highway, here’s what you need to do; etc.

You’d think by now that companies would have figured out that, whatever the cost-benefit analysis they perform – hey, that was only 13 deaths out of millions of cars on the road – it’s seldom (maybe even never) the prudent long-term thing to do to ignore a situation like this. Especially when we’re talking about kids dying.  Especially in this day and age, when there is not one rug left out there that you can safely sweep this sort of dirt under.

I mean, this was not a decision to give a wobbly cup holder a pass, or cheesy upholstery that cracks in the sun. When the words “life” and “death” are in play, it’s best to do something about it.

So far, Mary Barra has acquitted herself pretty well. She’s taken ownership of the problem, and has stated that she’ll get to the bottom of it.

But, gee, you do have to wonder why no one at GM seems to have briefed her on this potential problem. And that she only found out about it when she – metaphorically speaking – saw what was sitting in that credenza.

It probably didn’t help that Ms. Barra came up through the ranks. She probably assumed she knew everything there was to know. Those in senior position maybe assumed the same.

Maybe an outsider coming in would have asked some pointed questions about what she might be getting herself into: are there any gotchas I should know about?

And then there’s the level of preparedness Ms. Barra doesn’t seem to have achieved for her star turn before Congress.

I understand that you can’t possibly be prepared for everything they’re going to throw at you, especially given the unlimited capacity for politicians to grandstand. Still, it doesn’t seem as if Ms. Barra opened the other credenza door where there were better briefing files.

Don’t know if anyone’s going to get fired over this, but I believe plenty of folks on the CEO’s staff are in for a good dressing down.

In any case, I wish Mary Barra a GM truckload of luck.

I suspect she’s going to need it.

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