JASON STEIN

Barra's job just got a lot harder

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Jason Stein is editor and publisher of Automotive News.
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After the cameras stopped clicking and a sullen and drained General Motors CEO escaped Washington on a commercial flight, the automotive world was left with this thought: What really just happened?

Was last week's public grilling about a faulty ignition switch or about New GM vs. Old GM? Did Mary Barra show enough emotion, compassion and passion? Does GM operate under a culture of cost or does it view the customer as its compass?

Ms. Barra went to Washington.

But what did she say?

Not much.

And that's why -- in an apparent effort not to say the wrong thing in legally sanitized testimony over two days -- she left GM's image no better, if not worse, than it was when she started.

To be sure, this was a mismatch from the start. Some of the lawmakers Barra faced, after all, were speaking for constituents who had lost their lives in defective Chevy Cobalts.

It was also inflammatory. It was frightening. It was personal.

"I am very disappointed, really as a woman to woman, because the culture you're representing here today is the culture of the status quo," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who questioned Barra's role as a change agent.

Barra spent a good portion of her two-day, 230-minute political grilling answering questions about the Old GM.

Rightly or wrongly, that's what she still represents.

By the crisis-control textbook, Barra has done the right thing. She has handed the investigation to an outside, respected expert -- attorney Anton Valukas -- and told him to leave no stone unturned in his quest for answers.

And in her testimony, she was composed. She made no big mistakes. And she said she was sorry -- more than once.

But by repeatedly deferring to the internal investigation in progress, she managed to come across as sometimes out of touch and too GM.

(Did she really consult her notes to answer a question about what job she held in 2005?)

The nonanswers were enough to prompt an exasperated Boxer to proclaim: "You don't know anything about anything."

Barra stands behind her 33 years at GM; that path is what earned her the top job. Yet, ironically, for GM to move forward, she needs to live by the change-agent persona she tried to sell last week.

And for her to sell that successfully to the American people, real change must come quickly. None of it will be easy.

Barra's a career-long GM insider. And shaking up a culture doesn't happen easily.

As a college dean told Bloomberg last week: "It's kind of hard to have grown up in a company and suddenly say, 'Now that I'm in charge, I'm going to change things.'"

Barra still has a chance to seize control.

There will be internal resistance. Her challenge will be restating GM's values and then saying them again. And she must be quick, severe and efficient with punishment of the employees who got GM into this mess.

Barra has the ability to do this. She was put into her position because she knows how to lead.

Despite last week's missed opportunities, there's still a chance to seize control.

As one reader told us last week: "The ONLY credible chance GM has to convince others of real change will be when the things it undertakes are as sensible to an outsider looking in as GM rationalizing decisions to itself."

The new Barra era is one that must be constructed around convincing the public, lawmakers and investigators that she isn't part of the Old GM.

Criminal accusations. Damaging e-mail trails. And a Congress that is out for blood.

Barra's task is monumental. What happens now will say everything about where the New GM is headed.

Last week's circus -- as intimidating, eye-popping and ugly as it was -- reinforces one thing in this crisis: Barra's job just got a lot tougher.

Surely, this isn't what she signed up for. But it's her mess to clean up.

You can reach Jason Stein at jstein@crain.com. -- Follow Jason on Twitter

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