DETROIT -- In March, General Motors' product development chief Mary Barra joined the board of diversified giant General Dynamics Corp. At most big companies, that wouldn't be a big deal. But at GM, it is a dramatic change.
For decades, joining outside boards was discouraged to the point where GM executives didn't bother. GM's top brass feared it would be a distraction.
GM CEO Dan Akerson sees it differently. Shortly after taking over last September, Akerson began touting service on outside boards as a way for GM execs to see the inner workings of successful companies and grow as managers.
"One of the first things that caught Dan's notice was that GM has a deep bench of executive talent and that the company would benefit from having some of them gain further experience by serving on outside boards," a GM spokeswoman said.
Akerson, a former private equity and telecommunications executive, weighs the benefit to GM and the executive on a case-by-case basis, the spokeswoman said.
Akerson has been on several corporate boards. He remains a director of American Express Co.
To some, Akerson's desire to expose GM execs to the ways of other corporations is a refreshing change for a company long chided for insularity.
John Bukowicz, a partner at Courland Automotive Practice, an executive-search firm in suburban Detroit, said: "I think it demonstrates GM's leadership is embracing cultural diversity by being more involved with outside organizations."
Other Detroit automakers let executives join outside boards, but with restrictions. Ford Motor Co. executives, for example, can be on only one for-profit board at a time, a spokesman said. Ford doesn't allow more than 15 percent of its officers to be directors of for-profit companies at a given time. Ford CEO Alan Mullaly doesn't sit on any for-profit boards.
Chrysler Group lets managers sit on boards of for-profit companies, but only with approval of senior executives, a spokeswoman said. Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne is a director at Philip Morris International Inc. and several other for-profit companies outside Fiat Group.
Jamie LaReau contributed to this report