No More “GM Nod”

A few weeks ago my car wouldn’t start in the parking lot of the dry cleaner. There had been a clicking noise for a few weeks when I started the car, but each time I ignored it, hoping it would go away. Well, it didn’t. It just got worse until we had to take the car to our local mechanic, who said I needed a new ignition switch. After the car was fixed and I didn’t have to worry every time I tried to start it, I realized what I had been doing. Even though my car is not a GM, I’d been giving it the “GM Nod.”


I don’t know about the rest of the world, but in my neck of the woods, it was a big deal when Mary Barra became the first female CEO of General Motors and first head of a major U.S. automaker on January 15. Senior Vice-President for Global Development for the two previous years, Barra was highly respected and well positioned to lead General Motors.

Imagine Barra’s surprise, then, when after barely starting, she was presented with the news that faulty ignition switches on millions of GM vehicles since 2002 had led to thirteen deaths. It soon became clear that dozens of people knew about the design flaw, but information never flowed to the top levels of the company. Barra described it as the “GM Nod,” where managers would sit in a room nodding in agreement that steps needed to be taken to address the issue, but they would leave the room and do nothing about it.

Mary Barra quickly became the public face of this scandal. Rather than hide or side-step the issues, Barra openly and honestly admitted GM’s responsibility and initiated steps to correct the problems. Former federal prosecutor Anton Valukas, who was charged with producing an investigative report, interviewed two hundred and thirty people and reviewed forty-one million documents.

The report detailed a “pattern of incompetence and neglect,” as the ignition defect was ignored for over a decade. Valukas also described the “GM Salute” as part of the auto giant’s dysfunctional culture. The “GM Salute” was the practice of employees sitting through meetings with their arms folded and pointing at others, indicating that it was others who were responsible, not them. Six days after the report was released on May 29, Mary Barra fired fifteen people who she said did not take responsibility. She also recalled 1.6 million GM cars and arranged to compensate the victims.

A week ago GM recalled another 8.4 million vehicles, the vast majority because of ignition switch defects. Barra also revealed three more deaths, eight injuries and three crashes related to the latest series of recalls. “We have worked aggressively to identify and address the major outstanding issues that could impact the safety of our customers,” Barra said. “If any other issues come to our attention, we will act appropriately and without hesitation.” It is estimated that GM will have spent $1.2 billion in the second quarter of 2014 on expenses related to the recalls.

Although some people still see women CEOs as a novelty, Mary Barra has already proven to be a leader who is calm, able to lead with authority and insists on facing issues directly rather than passing the buck or attempting to protect herself or the company. The “GM Nod” is over, as Barra models the kind of openness and ethical integrity that has described the ideals of our country from its very founding two hundred and thirty-eight years ago.

General Motors will surely recover as it refocuses on its stated vision, “At the new General Motors we are passionate about designing, building and selling the world’s best vehicles. This vision unites us as a team each and every day and is the hallmark of our customer-driven culture.”

Fred Keller.  Photo by Johnny Quirin

Another one of my business heroes is Fred Keller, Chair and CEO of Cascade Engineering, a diversified manufacturer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, whose markets include large truck and automotive transportation, waste management and recycling, office furniture, agricultural/industrial containers, water filtration, polymer compounding and renewable energy project management.

Cascade Engineering, which Keller started forty-one years ago, is also one of the largest certified B corporations in the world. A B corporation is a new kind of company that redefines success by using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. Keller has long been a champion of the Triple Bottom Line, which means that the mission of any company should not simply be economic profit. The purpose of business is to positively impact society and the environment as well as make a profit. Keller is convinced that great leaders are not only good at building businesses but they lead change in their communities as well.

Fred Keller was recently named Executive-in-Residence at the Center for Positive Organizations at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. In a speech given in June at the Ross School of Business as part of the Positive Links Speaker Series, Keller said that today’s business leaders are called not only to help grow their own companies but to make the world a better place by helping to solve wicked complex problems.

A wicked complex problem is a cultural or social problem that is challenging to address because of the great number of people involved, different opinions on the nature of and economic burden of the problem and the interconnected nature of the issue. Wicked complex problems such as poverty, racism, sustainability, equality, and health touch all of us, and Fred Keller believes that business leaders have a responsibility to move beyond economic profit to give back to their communities through positive leadership.

Cascade Engineering’s nationally known sustainability philosophy includes this statement, “We have worked diligently over the past decade to create a strategy focused on sustainability that propels our innovation and sets forth our future direction. In fact, our company’s purpose as defined by our employees is to make a positive impact on our society, the environment and to be financially successful.” The company also places high value on each employee, including this statement about culture, “A culture of inclusion allows people to feel comfortable contributing, encourages new perspectives, and makes the most of each person’s potential.” There is no “GM Nod” or “GM Salute” at Cascade Engineering.

I might add that Fred Keller is a life-long United Methodist and often quotes John Wesley in his presentations, “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” Because John Wesley would not ignore the social ills of his day, he left the church building to meet the common people where they were: in the mines, the prisons, the slums, the fields and the slave ships. A hallmark of our United Methodist heritage is that we do not disclaim responsibility for the wicked complex problems of our day but jump in with heart, mind, soul and strength to change the world.

What can the church learn from General Motors as well as Cascade Engineering?

  • Don’t assume that someone else will do it. People at all levels of the church must take responsibility for excellence in ministry by eliminating the “Church Nod” or the “Church Salute.”
  • Create a culture that encourages every voice to be heard. Mary Barra made it clear to all GM employees, “If you are aware of a potential problem affecting safety or quality and you don’t speak up, you are a part of the problem.” In the same way, we need to empower all church members to offer ideas and suggestions for improving our systems and processes.
  • Eliminate a silo mentality. All areas of a church’s operation are interconnected. Churches that function most effectively never say, “If it’s not in my area, I don’t care about it.” Constant and effective communication and support between ministries and staff eliminates many potential problems.
  • Value people over profits. Many churches are so caught up in survival that they forget all about their mission and vision to share God’s unconditional love with a hurting world. Don’t let finances or buildings trump relationships or mission.
  • Adopt a customer mindset. The church is not about us and our preferences. The church is here to serve the world and bring in God’s kingdom. It’s about all those who are just waiting to an invitation to lose their lives and become part of something larger than themselves.
  • Act with urgency. The Valukas report said,“Throughout the entire eleven-year odyssey, there was no demonstrated sense of urgency, right to the very end. The officials overseeing the potential fixes and investigations did not set timetables and did not demand action.”
  • The needs of our world are urgent, and there is no time to waste. May God grant all of us the courage to move beyond mere nodding and saluting to acting with justice, kindness and mercy now.



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