January 16, 2015 by

Mary Barra runs General Motors. She worked her way up and earned the title of CEO in January, 2014.

We all know what happened after that. In April, and three more times since then, Barra was called to Congress to testify about faulty ignition switches in GM vehicles linked to 13 deaths. What has become clear from these investigations is that the GM culture is bureaucratic, and to say the least, ethically challenged. There is no accountability built into the behemoth.

Any business ethicist would celebrate with chocolate-coated strawberries and champagne if she scored an interview with Barra to learn her plan to turn GM’s ethical culture around. Well, I can’t drink the champagne yet because I haven’t gotten that interview. However, I’ve decided to craft an imaginary interview to allow Barra to channel her plan through me.

Bev: Thanks for this opportunity, Mary. From seasoned business leaders to young professionals, we all want to hear you talk about what you are doing at GM.

Mary: Happy to be here.

Bev: Experts say that your challenge is to change GM’s ethical culture. What is culture, Mary?

Mary: Organizational culture is to employees like water is to fish.  It’s all around us, it keeps us alive, but if we don’t look for it, it is invisible to us. But once we recognize it, we realize it is essential to our lives and work.

Bev: How would you describe GM’s ethical culture when you took the role of CEO?

Mary: In a large firm, we need effective processes. But we had developed a culture where we have process for the sake of process. An issue would go from one committee to another to another. And we had no accountability. There was no resolution. The issue would just die. The buck didn’t stop with anyone.

Bev: How are you going to change that?

Mary: One of the best ways to affect ethical behavior is the use of moral words. Really brings intentionality to our ethics. So I’ve developed a tactic where I practice using the word “accountable” at least five times a day when I’m talking to staff, vendors, and the like. I even keep track of it on my calendar.

Bev: Really? That seems a little corny.

Mary: Corny is good when it works, Bev. And it works.

Bev: What else do you do to drive accountability?

Mary: Well, I love thinking out of the box. So I thought of having our creative group develop an accountability cheer that we can all do before team meetings. But that idea is really corny.

Bev: Yeah…even I think that’s over the top.

Mary: And there is another concept we are rolling out…it’s the mirror strategy.  Research indicates that the feeling of invisibility that contributes to acts of fraud and embezzlement can be mitigated when people are confronted by mirrors that are strategically placed. In order to focus on accountability, we are posting mirrors across our workplaces with the message “The buck stops here.”

Bev: Can’t wait to hear how the strategy works. Say, one final question before you go. Do you think GM’s culture would have been any different if you were headquartered in Omaha?

Mary: Well, I know that one of the identified Omaha core values is accountability. I think it would have been front-of-mind for us if we were headquartered here. So yes, being Omaha-based would have made a difference.

Bev: Thanks again for your time, Mary.

Mary: It was a pleasure.

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Business Ethics Alliance, and the Daugherty Chair in Business Ethics & Society at Creighton University.

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