What embattled General Motors CEO Mary Barra told students about handling a crisis

Advice for how to handle a crisis, from someone in one.
Advice for how to handle a crisis, from someone in one.
Image: AP/Carlos Osorio
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General Motors CEO Mary Barra has been in crisis management mode for months after a faulty ignition switch led to several deaths and a large car recall. On Saturday, she told University of Michigan graduates that the only way to deal with a problem like that is to address it head on.

Barra didn’t directly reference the GM recall, but gave some closely related advice in her speech:

I’m reminded of the plant manager who asked his lead engineer to explain her hiring process.

She said, “Well I fill a bathtub with water and offer the applicant a teaspoon, a teacup, and a bucket. Then we ask him or her to empty the tub.”

“I get it,” the manager said. “A go-getter will use the bucket.”

“No,” said the engineer. “A go-getter will pull the drain plug.”

If you have an issue in your life–at work or at home–pull the drain plug. Address it head on, with everything you have, and address it right away.

In my experience, it’s much better to get the right people together, make a plan, and address every challenge head on.

And remember, hope is not a strategy. Problems don’t go away when you ignore them, they get bigger.

GM knew about the defect for over a decade, but did not start recalling affected cars until February. Barra told a congressional committee she found out in December.

Right now, Barra is using the company’s crisis to attempt to make significant changes (paywall) to a GM management culture that allowed the defects in the first place, changing up her executive team and updating the company’s structure.

Two student groups had asked that the school rescind their invitation for Barra to speak due to the delayed recall. Unlike former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice at Rutgers, Barra gave her speech despite the potential controversy, though there were no protests in this case.

Here’s the speech in full. The portion where Barra starts to share advice for graduates starts 4 minutes and 50 seconds in: