At GM, Barra Finds Time To Change Some Players On Chess Board – Forbes

Posted: Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Imagine if Mary Barra hadn’t been confronted right away as CEO with one of the biggest crises ever to hit General Motors General Motors. She likely already would have done what she apparently has just gotten around to doing this week.

That is, replace some of the players on her chess board. Fashioning their own teams around them is what many new CEOs do, of course. And Barra now is forging ahead with some such moves even as she is preoccupied with GM’s future, current and past handling of the huge problem with its ignition switches.

Thus both GM’s head of HR, Melissa Howell, and its top communications guy, Selim Bingol, are leaving “to pursue other interests,” the company announced today.

Barra promoted an executive director in HR, John Quattrone, to succeed Howell as senior vice president of global human resources. Barra herself briefly headed HR for GM on her path to the top. She became known in that position and elsewhere as a great exponent of a more collaborative approach to management than was traditionally in favor at GM.


Perhaps via Quattrone — and with any abatement of the ignition-switch-recall crisis — Barra will get an opportunity to spell out what her management philosophy actually could mean for the entire company.

The CEO also cast Quattrone as a change agent on behalf of the GM customer. “John brings to the job a deep and rich breadth of experience across all levels of the enterprise,” Barra said in a press release. “This background is invaluable as we create lasting change that puts the customer at the center of how we work and how we measure ourselves going forward.”

Meanwhile, GM didn’t immediately name a successor to Bingol, who was a top communications executive for AT&T AT&T before joining GM in 2010 as the communications chief. He also took over global public policy, in 2012. Bingol was brought in by former GM CEO Ed Whitacre, the first post-bankruptcy chief who came from outside to occupy GM’s top spot; and Bingol shared a telecom background with Barra’s predecessor as CEO, Dan Akerson. He also guided the communications around GM’s IPO in 2010, the largest in history at that time.

But having a comfortable mouthpiece and PR advisor is crucial to many CEOs; and more so at a time of such import as faces Barra now.

GM’s problems with the ignition-switch recall haven’t been the fault of external communications but rather the fallout from internal cultural problems. In fact, one could argue that GM and Barra’s handling of messaging around the crisis has been one of their strengths, except for the hostile reception by some members of Congress to her testimony before them earlier this month. Faced with the immense communications challenges of managing an unfolding debacle on the fly, Barra has been served well overall by her advisors.

Yet clearly it is important for Barra to have complete confidence in who’s guiding her in a PR arena that will have a great impact on her future in the job. That could suggest elevating to Bingol’s old position someone from within GM whom Barra already knows. Or, recruiting an accomplished outsider to the job could be one way for Barra to bring some badly needed new horsepower to her side in a person who has no GM baggage.




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