DETROIT — Once every quarter, General Motors CEO Mary Barra gathers the automaker's top 12 executives for a two-day retreat away from the office. It's not a meeting to discuss upcoming vehicles, market share or marketing strategies.
"All we talk about is how we behave with each other," said John Quattrone, who has attended the sessions for three years as GM's human resources chief.
"These are pretty intense, serious sessions," Quattrone told Automotive News. "Mary's belief is if we change our behaviors and we do the right things then the people who work for us will emulate that, and that will drive a culture change down through the organization. I have seen it happen."
Barra, who herself ran global HR in the years after GM's bankruptcy, has made cultural change a cornerstone of her tenure as CEO, which began just weeks before the company's recall of defective ignition switches forced her to confront its deep-seated dysfunction. A key figure driving that change has been Quattrone, 64, who has announced plans to retire Sept. 1.
Quattrone's successor will be Jose Tomas, who stood out to GM for his experience transforming employee culture and engagement at health insurer Anthem Inc. and fast-food giant Burger King. His selection underscores the level of emphasis that Barra's leadership team has placed on fixing long-standing internal failings, a crusade that Quattrone said has made considerable progress.
Improvement has come so fast, he said, that the company GM has hired to conduct a periodic employee engagement survey balked at reporting the results because it thought the gain was too big to be legitimate. And the next round of the survey produced another big jump.
But no one on the 39th floor of GM's headquarters, where Barra's and Quattrone's offices overlook the Detroit River, is declaring the job anywhere close to being complete. The difficulty of ingraining such revolutions was made clear in May, when Ford Motor Co. ousted CEO Mark Fields amid signs that the makeover engineered by predecessor Alan Mulally was coming unwound.
"Every leader is bought in and driving it," Quattrone said last week. "I think it is more sustainable than anything I've ever seen. In the past you would go do this, you'd talk about it and maybe have a big meeting — 'Oh, we're going to change the culture' — and everybody would go back and nothing would change. With Mary and this team, we call each other on it. Part of my role is to make sure that we call each other on it."