GM's CEO Gets Company Culture. Do You?

GM CEO Edward Whitacre appears to be doing what his predecessors seemed incapable of doing: being a red-blooded, true leader. And it looks like it's starting to pay off with a much needed culture change.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the 68-year-old Whitacre does such shocking things as walking around GM offices and talking to people; dropping in on employees unexpectedly, while wearing jeans and a T-shirt; giving a junior GM employee who lives in Whitacre's apartment building a ride to work and a tour of the executive suite; and -- get this -- actually appearing to listen when engaged in conversation!

He apparently has gotten the message that GM's "plodding culture" is a big part of the auto giant's problems, and he just may be on his way to fixing it. Corporate culture is, in some ways, analogous to the personality of an individual. It's the way it feels, over time, to work in and interact with an organization. Culture gets deeply embedded in the people and structures of companies, and therefore is extremely resistant to change. GM's culture was notoriously slow-moving, hierarchical and bureaucratic. The Journal piece includes the amazing detail that, several years ago, in an effort to stamp out bureaucracy, the company -- in its infinite bureaucratic wisdom -- appointed a committee to study how many committee meetings should be held.

Whitacre seems to understand what I tell my CEO clients all the time: that culture, while ingrained, starts at the top, and the CEO is by far the person most able to change it. His spontaneous visits with employees, his real rather than entirely scripted conversations, and his willingness to grant managers greater autonomy all signal that he means business when it comes to shaking the place up. And the stories about his behavior undoubtedly spread like wildfire within GM, long before you read about them in the Wall Street Journal. As long as the CEO's actions are perceived as real, they will do good. Some employees will be nervous about their jobs, particularly the more senior ones who prefer the status quo or who are incapable of adapting. But it's a good thing that he may have some people squirming, and nothing for Whitacre to worry about. Not everyone will make it to the other side in a time of necessary transition.

If I were on the GM board, I'd be feeling cautiously optimistic that the company finally got the right guy in the driver's seat.