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The Last Word: HR's Road to GM's C-suite

As I write this, Mary Barra has made few remarks regarding people plans for the world’s seventh-largest company.

February 10, 2014
Related Topics: Employee Engagement, Motivating Employees, Retention, The Latest, Talent Management

Attn: Mary Barra
CEO, General Motors Corp.

Dear Ms. Barra,

First, let me congratulate you as you begin your new job as the CEO of General Motors. Your dedication and hard work as a lifelong employee at the automaker, through good times and bad, was recognized and rewarded. That’s got to be a good feeling.

But given that you led GM’s human resources function for 18 months during your ascension to CEO, I’d like to pose a few questions. Chiefly, how will you manage people at GM? Now that you are in the driver’s seat, will you accelerate the company’s HR practices into the 21st century?

As someone who has served in a number of high-level executive roles in the past several years, I know you are familiar with handling the tough questions. For example, your appointment in 2009 to lead the HR department was not met with warm-fuzzies throughout the entire HR community. Coming from a background in engineering and not people management, your move following the abrupt departure of longtime HR head Katy Barclay refueled the long-running debate of whether an executive who wasn’t steeped in HR should run the show.

“Would GM take an HR professional to run an engineering department? Or finance? This is taking HR back to the middle ages when ‘anyone can do “personnel,” ’ read a comment posted to the story about the change on the Workforce website at the time.

Still, I’m curious to know, what are the lessons learned from your stint in HR?

Yet your experience heading global manufacturing engineering prompted your former boss, GM chief executive Fritz Henderson, to write a letter to the editors of Workforce arguing that such experience makes you “exactly the kind of leader to take on a role like this if excellent HR processes and staff are in place.”

And now, some five years later, you’ve spent time in several different corporate functions. As a lifelong GM employee, you know the company’s culture and people. GM indeed has selected a former HR pro to run the company.

But the question on all of your employees’ minds has to be: How are you going to lead me? What will your management principles be? As a former HR executive, you know that’s absolutely critical to everyone in the company.

As I write this, you’ve made few remarks regarding your people plans for the world’s seventh-largest company. Industry insiders say you’re a consensus-builder and not a dictator. You also draw on outside advice to challenge old ways of thinking.

Still, I’m curious to know, what are the lessons learned from your stint in HR? One columnist tagged you as a “soft-spoken, math-loving nerd with a passion for problem-solving.” Problem solving with sensitivity sounds like HR practitioner skills — and an acumen for data that is needed in this new generation of HR and metrics. That’s encouraging given GM’s recent history as one of the most dysfunctional companies on earth.

Maybe that dysfunction is ending. Late last month you called your top 300 executives to Detroit to lay out your vision of GM’s future and etch the structure for your executive team. That kind of collaboration and transparency goes a long way to building a collaborative environment — something that is said to be one of your strengths.
With your background in HR — and to coin Chevrolet’s current slogan — you can help managers at all levels find new roads to success.

Utilizing practices like career development plans, peer recognition and an appreciation for big data in talent decisions will benefit the company holistically. And, as CEO, you not only can deliver the message that it’s important, but also you can back it up with why.

Yet, there’s something that gnaws at me. A roadblock, if you will, to you aligning HR as a strategic partner: A recent quote from former GM vice chair Bob Lutz makes me wonder if HR is truly respected in the C-suite at GM. “If human resources was either outsourced or cut down, back to its basic function of keeping records and making sure people get paid and promotional increases take place, I think we’d all be a lot better off, because they create way more work than they actually alleviate,” he said in a podcast late last year with former GM executive Debbie Dingell.

Lutz is now a big-shot consultant and speaker. He has been gone from the company for what, four years? Still, like you, many GM employees are lifers. Old habits — and attitudes — don’t die easily.

Yes, HR processes at their worst are bureaucratic, but at their modern best offer tremendous value. They can help forge a talent strategy and culture of engagement, innovation and excellence. Unfortunately, if the Lutz mindset remains, people practices at GM will be stuck in the Middle Ages for years to come.

But I imagine you know as much. And now that you have the keys, go find that new road. And don’t be afraid to let HR help you drive. After all, that’s one road you know well.

Rick Bell is Workforce's managing editor. Comment below or email Follow Bell on Twitter at @RickBell123.

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