THE BLOG
06/27/2014 04:54 pm ET | Updated Aug 27, 2014

What We Can Learn from Mary Barra's C-Suite

Bankruptcy, like growth, masks ills. Mary Barra, the embattled CEO of GM, knows this all too well. She has staked both her future and GM's on changing corporate culture. Yet, in the wake of more recalls, hostile congressional committees and the bombshell Valukas Report, Ms. Barra must recognize that even rougher days are ahead if she chooses to stay the course. It's time for Ms. Barra to become Mary, Mary Quite Contrary.

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General Motors CEO Mary Barra testifying before Congress

What GM needs more than a transformational leader is a transformational goal

Though aspirational and laudatory, changing GM's culture is not enough. Ms. Barra needs to quickly develop and articulate a transformational goal that will resonate and rocket GM to the top in share price, safety and stakeholder satisfaction. Anything less should be considered failure. GM is now about mindset, leadership and transformational change.

What the GM fiasco demonstrates is that leaders, businesses and business models have limited lifespans which can become stale, misguided and obsolete unless routinely challenged and validated.

Using GM, and Ms. Barra in specific for illustrative purposes, here's how we at C-Suite Advantage, high-stakes advisers to leading CEOs and business owners, help unburden leaders to become models of transformational change.

To that end, here are 4 suggestions to effectuate desired outcomes, address dysfunction, bring about culture change and challenge the status quo.

1. Seek an outside perspective

Invariably in these situations, a leader's initial instinct is to turn first to category experts -- such as attorneys or accountants -- to hammer out strategy, game plan and next steps, often times putting these individuals in a difficult position. Instead, leaders should seek out their own trusted adviser to set the table for the category experts. By providing the initial clarity and transformational change strategy, the blueprint for success can be seamlessly passed to those "who can take it from here".

The real key to future success is whether Ms. Barra, and other such leaders, are willing to embrace external feedback and fresh ideas. This requires going outside the organization to bring in their own "Antidote for Uncertainty" -- one who can provide the game-changing creativity, strategic clarity and fresh ideas necessary to turn key stakeholders into raging fans and supporters. Since many businesses today are too inward focused with an entrenched status quo, she should anticipate and be prepared to manage the internal resistance to outside input.

2. It's time to shine

Ms. Barra should conduct this effort like a political campaign where she is the candidate seeking votes from her constituents. It is the outside adviser's job to help her resonate, control the narrative and deliver on the promise of a better future. She will need a great platform, starting with a clear vision that everyone can embrace not only with financial objectives, budgets and time frames, but also with specific results and accountabilities that team members own and are rewarded upon.

3. Fix the culture

In such situations, it is imperative to recognize that no culture, business or leader is immune to obsolescence and irrelevance. To that end, Ms. Barra needs to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem and spell out why, despite the odds, GM will succeed. She also needs to ensure that self-serving, delusional bias does not further pervade the culture and decision-making. Ms. Barra must engage and empower others to challenge the status quo. Most importantly, despite the best of intentions, nothing significant will change unless she changes. Additionally, she must be visible, supportive and accountable. If the team cannot identify with the one they are playing for even the best game plan will fail.

4. Reach for the stars

Ms. Barra needs to clearly articulate the transformational goal so that key stakeholders buy-in and willingly adjust in order to turn GM into a success story for the ages. It is time to reach for the stars -- not unlike the Manhattan Project or Space Race -- and align the economic interests and values of key stakeholders including employees, vendors, dealers, customers, shareholders and regulators. Otherwise, there will not be the requisite change in behavior and mindset necessary to move GM from the outhouse to the penthouse. Anything less than transforming GM into a magnet that others are drawn to and a culture they will firmly embrace, is failure.

Complex issues are too important to be left to chance and fate. Businesses that combine innovative thinking and strategy with aggressive planning and execution will deliver leaders, products, cultures and solutions that others will proudly stand behind both now and in the future.

The underlying problems at GM need to be fixed in order to (re)gain institutional trust and a sustainable future. Mary Barra believes that changing GM's culture is the key. All eyes will be on her to see whether she can deliver.