DETROIT -- On April 14, in the heat of General Motors' recall crisis, CEO Mary Barra tweeted: "Our culture is simple: Our customers and their safety come first."
Her post was greeted with a mix of skepticism and hostility.
Talking GM culture wasn't supposed to be high on Barra's agenda in her first year as CEO. She and other GM execs had done that for years after bankruptcy, making a convincing case that this was a "New GM," smarter, nimbler, less bureaucratic.
Now, in the aftermath of a safety defect linked to 30 deaths and an investigation that laid bare the company's persistent decision-stifling dysfunction better than any book or MBA case study could, Barra is asked about it everywhere she goes.
But anyone waiting for the blueprint on how she'll tackle the culture issue will be disappointed. The idea of culture change is too abstract and distant for Barra, who is described by colleagues as an even-keeled pragmatist. (She once condensed GM's dress code to two words: "Dress appropriately.") Instead, she is pressing employees for small changes -- singular moments of candor and more-decisive action -- that over time will add up to the cultural transformation that has eluded so many GM CEOs before her.
It's the kind of effort that takes 10 years, Barra says. She wants to do it in five.
"The way I look at it, it's changing behaviors," Barra recently told Automotive News. She wants employees to be more forthright in meetings. She wants them to question their boss, or their boss' boss, or her, whenever someone is not delivering. She uses the phrase "own it" a lot.
"If I don't live up to what we all agree," she said, "they should call me out."