By Jim Owen
It feels like déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra so famously
put it. Here we have yet another
corporate giant under fire for failing to heed its most important obligations.
I’m talking about the latest General Motors debacle - the
slow-motion crash-and-burn we’ve witnessed since it came to light that troubling
auto safety issues at GM went unrecognized for more than a decade. Sorry as we might feel for Mary T. Barra, the
newly minted GM CEO who found herself on a congressional hot seat after just a
few months on the job, her discomfort pales against the casualties suffered by the
dozens of people hurt or killed in accidents tied to defective GM vehicles.
To be clear, nobody is suggesting that GM management
knowingly pushed safety issues under the rug; the company has voluntarily recalled millions
of cars over the years. Investigators did find, however, that lower-level GM
employees flagged problems with unexpected stalling of some models as early as
2005, but no one acted on their warnings.
That tells us the real problem at GM is a corporate culture
that pushes off problems and avoids accountability, even when public safety is
at stake. This kind of mindset may also have contributed to GM’s bankruptcy
woes in 2009.
Of course, it can be hard for employees to give bosses bad
news that translates into millions of dollars in costs, especially if their
managers want to look the other way. And
there’s no doubt that a head-in-the-sand, cover-your-behind mentality too often
rules in big corporate and government bureaucracies.
That’s all the more reason why every organization needs a culture of doing the right thing that
starts at the top, is championed by management, and carries through every layer
of the corporate or agency structure. If GM’s leadership had explicitly made it
every employee’s job to put safety ahead of profits and “do what has to be
done,” the company might not be on the ropes today.
It’s one more reminder that “everyone needs a code…a creed
to live by.” In our Standing Tall workshops we see many people
from small and mid-sized companies—business owners and professionals who take
time to articulate a clear set of values they can call upon to guide them in
the face of difficult choices. Can big companies like GM afford to do anything