Did the good old boys at General Motors suddenly discover that it was finally time for a female CEO? Was this a revelation from on high?
Or were they simply hiding behind Mary Barra’s skirts, so to speak? Is Ms. Barra really the best person to make GM “the global industry leader in automotive design and technology, product quality, customer care and business results,” as it says in her corporate bio? Or did they have something else in mind?
Could it be that they knew a huge safety recall was coming down the pike — a scandal that would call into particular question the company’s credibility with regard to product quality and customer care — and they just wanted to have a female figurehead in place, someone who might come across as warmer and/or more caring than the usual corporate Scrooges; or, failing that, someone who could be tossed into the volcano?
Well, the disaster did arrive this year, in the form of a massive recall, a $35 million fine from Uncle Sam and — perhaps worst of all — a grilling under the hot TV lights of Capitol Hill, this time with Ms. Barra in the role of red-faced corporate mouthpiece.
We may never know what the General’s true intentions were in naming her, but there’s a good deal we can infer about the corporate mind from reading internal documents that were released as part of the official consent decree. For starters, there’s a PowerPoint frame that begins: “Understand that there really aren’t any secrets in this company.” Below that, of course, it says: “Confidential.”
Then there are lists of words and phrases that GM people were instructed not to use when talking or writing about anything to do with safety. For example, “problem” is bad, “issue” is better; “defective” is bad, “does not perform to design” is preferred. Some other terms or expressions that are deemed not helpful — because they may have “emotional connotations” — are “apocalyptic,” “catastrophic,” “Corvair-like,” “death trap,” “evil,” “Hindenburg,” “Kevorkianesque,” “lawsuit waiting to happen,” “powder keg,” “Titanic,” “unbelievable engineering screw-up,” “widow-maker,” “you’re toast” and — my favorite — “rolling sarcophagus.”
(As for the Chevrolet Corvair, that requires a brief stroll down Memory Lane: Early models of this rear-engine car had handling problems similar to those of the VWs and Porsches of the era, but GM later made design changes. Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed” took GM to task over the Corvair, but that was just one chapter; the book was critical of the U.S. car industry as a whole. So it seems that the company’s ham-fisted campaign of harassment and intimidation against Nader did more harm than good. Nader sued, claiming that GM had him followed, tapped his phone, cast aspersions on his “political, social, racial and religious views ... and his personal habits” and used women to try to entrap him in compromising sexual situations. He demanded — and got — both money and a public apology from the president of GM.)
Where was I? Oh, yeah: A modern automobile is an extremely complicated device, made of thousands of parts, many of them manufactured by outside suppliers and/or in various countries. Problems are inevitable. All the big automakers have made lemons and all of them, foreign and domestic, have had to make safety recalls.
Some companies, though, seem to handle these things better than others, and right now it’s not clear that GM has learned much since the days of Ralph Nader and the Corvair.
Reach Glenn Richter at email@example.com.