Mary Barra started her career at GM in 1980 at the age of 18. Her first job was inspecting hoods and fender panels. When she took over as CEO in 2014, she faced 84 safety recalls impacting over 30 million cars, including a faulty ignition switch problem and charges of at least 124 deaths which would be the subject of a Senate Hearing. She had stuck with the company all of those years because she believed in the people and their values. She wasn’t about to just give up.
Barra was on a mission to close the gap between talking the talk and walking the walk. GM professed to be a great company, but they still allowed these oversights to occur. Consistency counts. She had to reshape their image both internally and publicly. She pointed out that’s it’s easy to live your values when things are easy, but you have to prove you can live your values when things got hard.
Espoused values are the ones we write on mission statements and post in break rooms. Espoused values still exist on the wall even when we’re cutting corners or acting irresponsibly. Active values are the ones we actually do and can be observed on a day to day basis. Active values are demonstrations that we don’t cut corners and act responsibly. In order to shift GM’s culture from one that allowed the safety recalls and bad ignition switches to occur, Barra set out to close the gap between the espoused and active values.
History will be the judge on whether or not Barra and GM persevere, but from 2014 there have been major changes. Barra walks the walk. At a Town Hall addressing employees about settling with the Justice Department over the deaths for $900 million, she said, “I never want to put this behind us. I want to put this painful experience permanently in our collective memories.” She wasn’t talking about the financial hit, she was talking about the active values.
We can all learn from Barra. It’s important to write down and espouse what we want our organizations to be. It’s more important to actually act those things out. When we fail, acknowledge the failure. But then, as she has said, be action-oriented, “because there’s always a way to move forward.”