General Motors TruckDear Ms. Barra,

I imagine being CEO of GM right now is not the most fun job. Probably not part of your childhood dream!

I wonder if you are starting to realize the full impact GM’s corporate culture has in creating and executing a true vision for change.

A culture that has thrived on patriarchal systems is intended to serve one master: Protection of power. Not an intention to serve customers or foster pride and other core values. When cars can shut off on the highway for a reason known 10 years ago … it’s not going to be a quick transformation. At the same time, the transformation must show definitive and rapid commitment to change.

In a “culture of paranoia” (Rep. Diana Degette’s term in Bloomberg interview regarding GM’s culture), several things are consistently true:

  • Leaders do not know what’s going on in their own company. They really don’t.
  • Top leaders don’t tell each other the truth about what they do know. It’s not done in the Boardroom, unless you’ve been taught how.  The CEO – especially a new one – is at highest risk in this dynamic.
  • People hide and “sweep under the rug” what’s going on to avoid being fired. Because people ARE fired for telling the truth in such companies. In your company, it’s publicly known as the “GM Nod” (“Go ahead, I won’t tell.”) and the “GM Shrug” (“It’s not my problem.”).
  • There is resistance to change because change exposes mistakes. Mistakes are viewed as failure, not a source of learning.
  • Hiding mistakes leads to congestive heart failure in a company: It cuts off the blood supply across the system. In a corporate culture, blood is feedback.
  • People don’t really care about customers, beyond creating marketing campaigns that sell to them.

There is no simple or easy answer to the complexities you face right now. A corporate culture that can embrace problem-solving, learning and mistakes to relentlessly be better and serve its customers, is not an easy transformation. Much easier to build cars.

There are a few simple principles to doing so, many which you publicly state you know:

1) You, the CEO, must own and accept full accountability for the corporate culture. Good, bad, and ugly. Both as it is, and as it should be. Without a significant commitment to changing the culture, nothing will change at GM in spite of your talent, vision, and skill. This is the tragedy and opportunity of modern leadership: Many corporations today are hostage to outdated management practices that are designed for protecting ego more than serving customers. People in such cultures can’t tell the truth, face reality, and execute a good leaders’ true vision.

2) You must call your Leadership Team to account for the culture, and its evolution – and precisely what that looks like.  Culture won’t change unless leaders change – in some cases the “who” must change, in other cases their leadership must change. Unless you have don’t major work on this front, your Leadership Team is fully vested in looking good more than in honest dialogue about the real problems in your company.  Rarely is anyone at the C-level is exposed to truth in a patriarchal system: It’s the implicit code of paranoid cultures to hide truth from leaders.  The same motives that had us hide when we smoked cigarettes or watched dirty movies, from mom and dad.

3) You need a proven process for determining what culture habits need to change, how you will assess and measure them, and hold your leaders accountable.  Culture is not fuzzy or mysterious or the realm of corporate psychologists. It’s definable, measurable, and change-able. While true transformation takes years in a company, visible cultural shifts can happen quickly if you take the right approach. This requires a great deal of courage, will-power, and hard decision-making.  The good news is, great stories exist(such as””Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?” by Lou Gerstner, and others) … to show the journey is both possible and worthy.

If you want it.

I sincerely wish for you, the courage, conviction, and support to lean in at this time in GM’s history, and restore GM’s American pride.

I am cheering you on, for a long overdue “pop the hood” effort on the hidden, dirty, long-rusted engine of your company. One that shines light on where an overhaul is needed. And, one that will surely determine if GM can truly Find New Roads.

That would be an amazing legacy for a rare female President of an iconic organization.

Best Regards,

Lisa Jackson, Principal


Comments ( 3 )

  • Merv Wilkinson

    Your commentary Lisa is “spot on” from my own experiences mentoring and coaching and observing organisational cultures and leaders attempting to shape culture and actually being shaped by it.

  • Mark Rome

    Thanks Lisa. Many of us have experienced the “culture of paranoia” first-hand.

    In the public sector, senior leaders can no longer “sweep under the rug” what’s going on (Phoenix VA Hospital,, etc.).

    At Empower2adapt, we build online libraries of all employee and contractor hard and soft skills, and establish critical feedback loops to better understand and address complex problems. With an organization-wide map of all employee and contractor hard and soft skills, senior leaders can:

    – readily identify areas of poor performance,

    – assemble high-performance teams to solve complex problems that demand swift and innovative responses,

    – align decision-making at every level and every department with organizational goals and strategy,

    – create flexible work environments to attract and retain a qualified workforce,

    – and project what the workforce will look like in the future.

  • Desirae Fowler

    Ms. Jackson,

    Phenomenon article, if only this could be hand-delivered to all CEO’s. Quite frankly, this hits it right on the money, “Culture is not fuzzy or mysterious or the realm of corporate psychologists. It’s definable, measurable, and change-able.” Organizational culture is also seen from insiders AND outsiders. If consumers pay close attention, they can tell the type of culture that a company has created and unfortunately they aren’t held accountable for it. As you pointed out, organizational communication is key to creating a true, ethical culture. Lying, looking the other way, misguided information, etc. only hinder the performance of your employees and your company. “Underpinned by a theory of virtue, an ethical corporate culture, through an ingrained set of habits and perspectives, trains all those in its purview to see things in a certain way and hence is likely to predispose them toward ethical behavior, (Johannesen, Valde, & Whedbee, p. 160, 2008). Therefore like GM, Enron, and many others, when you create a “bad” and unethical culture, you are also training and instilling negative perceptions into the minds of your employees who one day will soon be your top management. This only creates a vicious cycle. You lie, teach others how to lie, they teach others how to lie, and it goes on and on. Not only are they hurting present day corporate America, but our future as well.

    Thanks for you insight!

    Sources: Johannesen, R., Valde, K., & Whedbee, K. (2008). Ethics in human communication. Waveland Press, Inc.: Long Grove, IL.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.