There have been no shortage of books over the years devoted to the glass ceiling, a phenomenon that is still very much evident today in organizations, both big and small. But few, if any, have attempted to explore the issue through the story of one single leader.
In Road to Power: How GM’s Mary Barra Shattered the Glass Ceiling, a book being released today by Bloomberg Press, Laura Colby, a reporter for Bloomberg News, has found a worthy subject in General Motors’ CEO, Mary Barra. What makes her story of particular interest to those of us in HR is the fact that, for a short but very trying period of time (when GM was in the process of navigating through bankruptcy), Barra led the HR function at GM.
As head of HR, Colby reports in Road to Power, Barra held a significant amount of power in shaping the company’s future management. “Thousands of people were leaving the company. Barra’s job was to maintain morale among the most promising ones—the high achievers—so that they wouldn’t bolt at a time when they could get bigger salaries elsewhere.”
Early in her tenure as HR chief, Colby writes, Barra went on the road, “visiting the company’s locations across the country. She’d hold brown-bag lunches at plants and offices to answer employee questions. She also had a series of more formal meetings with invited representatives from different sections of the company, so-called diagonal slices. With more than a dozen plants closing and thousands of workers laid off, she needed to underline the message that the company wanted those who remained to do their jobs well and to be accountable for the results.”
Colby describes in the book some of the more formidable challenges Barra faced at the time. But as the author reminds us on at least a few occasions, sometimes it’s the small stuff that can be particularly telling about an organization’s culture.
A great example can be found in the chapter titled “The Volt: Shocked into Action” (keep in mind this is an excerpt from an advanced copy of the book). It specifically touches on GM’s dress code …
“One of the most iconic things Barra did to get the message across that times were changing was to relax the company’s dress code. It ran to about 10 pages when she joined HR, including descriptions of proper attire for everyone from assembly line workers to office staff to executives. “It was probably the most interesting change and the biggest learning that I had into a culture,” Barra said at the Fortune women’s forum. She whittled the code down into two words. We said, ‘Dress appropriately.’ That was it.”
Rather than liberating employees, the change left some of them terrified. Barra said she’d have managers e-mailing or calling her and asking for written details of the policy.
“So I’d take them through, and say, ‘What do you do?’ And they’d say, ‘I manage 20 people and a $10 million budget.’ ” And I’d say, ‘I can trust you to manage 20 people and $10 million but I can’t trust you to dress appropriately, to figure that out?’ ”
True, the future of GM hardly hinged on what folks wore—or didn’t wear—to work. But as Colby quotes the subject of the book saying at the Fortune conference, Barra considered the dress-code experience a “window into the change we needed to make.”
And for those of us reading about it some years later, it serves as a valuable reminder that many of the policies and practices we put in place as HR leaders, even the ones that don’t fall into the category of make-or-break—along with the behaviors we demonstrate—send powerful signals about our organization’s culture and priorities.Twitter It!