There are a lot of buzz words in industry, and perhaps the most overused is "people," as in "our people make a difference" or "our people go the extra mile." The corporate lingo of employee empowerment, teamwork, and "let's do this together" are often disingenuous bromides that amount to little more than cheerleading a team that may or may not have a job tomorrow. After thousands of lay-offs and branch closings, GM's talk about changing the culture of the company to get it out of yesterday's slow-paced, business-as-usual rut and into a forward-thinking, people-oriented, innovative future, may sound like just another sales pitch -- especially to the employees who have sweated out every change, wondering where the ax would swing next.
General Motors is in a state of organizational flux. The most recent shake-up of top leadership, in which Chairman Ed Whitacre took over CEO duties from Fritz Henderson, came as a surprise, even to industry insiders. Henderson had only been in the position for eight months. However, changes leading to a full recovery were not happening fast enough. To get back on top, GM is shedding itself of unprofitable divisions and getting back to its roots -- making popular automobiles that will turn a profit.
How are the people at GM taking the changes, though? Since GM is one of the sponsors of my cross-country writing trip, I recently got to spend some time with their employees, in Los Angeles as the new electric Chevrolet Volt was premiered, and in Seattle at a social media event. Many have been employed with GM for a number of years. Their homes, families, and futures are depending on GM's ability to pull itself out of the economic wreckage. There have been raw nerves, sleepless nights, and anxious days spent waiting for news from the top.
Yet, underneath the anxiety, the feeling that I got was that GM employees are hopeful. They really feel that they are participating in the birth of some new automotive zenith that will turn GM's fortunes, and by extension, their own and those of other workers, around.
The questions, some peppered with cynicism, were flying at Andrew Farah during the pre-events of the LA Auto Show, but the chief engineer of the new Chevrolet Volt was beaming. Yes, it's an electric car that gets 40 miles with a single charge but no, there's no need for range anxiety -- gasoline is used to power a generator that will keep the battery going after 40 miles -- and no, it's not like a Prius. The Prius uses a gasoline engine to turn the wheels; the Volt uses its electric motor exclusively. Yes, you can charge it at home -- it will take about 8 hours with a standard 120 volt wall outlet, or you can use a 240 volt EV charging station, and get a full charge in about three hours.
In Berkeley, employees were excited to share information on their fuel cell electric Equinox, which has been test-driven over a million miles by volunteer consumers in real-world conditions. The infrastructure of clean hydrogen production and accessibility has not yet caught up to the automotive technology. Employees realize it may take more time than they'd like, but they are energized by being on the front lines of mass-producing one of America's first zero-emissions automobiles.
Andrew Farah and Shad Balch, an Environment and Energy communicator for GM, are in agreement that new technology alone won't get GM out of the red. Innovation costs money, and it's not always immediately rewarded. The Volt alone, according to Farah, won't save GM's bottom line, but it will be strong competition in a market that's looking for green alternatives. Right now, only an estimated 4% of the population drives hybrid vehicles. The difference between a parallel hybrid, like the Prius, and a series hybrid like the Volt, has been a source of confusion for consumers. Outside of production and marketing, GM has been charged with educating consumers and dispelling common myths about electric vehicles, such as the belief that the car will stop running after 40 miles.
In the meantime, GM needs to reinvigorate a sagging market the old-fashioned way -- with automotive brands that are distinctive, that serve the needs of today's buying public, and that create loyalty. Those conversations are undoubtedly going on in Chairman Whitacre's office, even as newly styled Chevy Camaros and hybrid GMC trucks and SUV's roll into dealerships.
A few floors below, and in GM plants, centers, and offices across America, employees are living a dichotomous life. They, perhaps even more than Whitacre, shareholders, and the taxpayers who loaned GM the money to stay solvent, want the changes that are being made at the top to succeed. They want to be part of a revival that will not only ensure their own futures, but a good portion of America's. They want to see the thousands of jobs come back, and they want to know that they won't lose their own during the next round of transformation. They want their sleepless nights to end. They hope that their enthusiasm is not misplaced.