Lessons in Corporate Culture From General Motors

The second question is, where was the board during all of this? Barra, at the senate hearings into the now famous “ignition switch” catastrophe, sounded a lot like Tony Hayward, the CEO of BP during the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico by claiming, “I knew nothing about it.” He went on to state uncaringly: “I’d like to get back to my life.”


Culture is a powerful force for both good and bad. In this worst case scenario, there are obvious points to avoid and clear lessons for CEOs:

  • Forge a customer-centric culture where the total focus of the company is on the customer, not the product. In reality, every company is in the customer business.
  • Establish a competitive analysis strategy that provides ongoing input on the strengths and weaknesses of each of your major competitors, as well as trends in product development.
  • Monitor your share-of-market religiously and analyze changes carefully, as there is a natural tendency to pooh pooh variances as “temporary aberrations” or “due to short-term economic conditions.”
  • Establish and closely monitor (don’t delegate) critical key performance indicators of the financial health of the company.
  • Follow technological developments in your industry. Participate in industry forums.
  • Get out from behind your desk. Visit customers to get input on their changing requirements.
  • Resist chasing opportunities that have little to do with your core business. Typically, they consume precious time and distract you from pursuing your unique value proposition.
  • Have an active and engaged board of directors.
  • Update and review your strategic plan every quarter with your management team.

Peter Drucker, the guru of management, said “the purpose of a business is to create a customer, and the role of the leader is to grow the value of the customer.” His words have never rung more true than they do today.

Robert M. Donnelly is CMO of Flo-Tite Valves & Controls, a U.S. based supplier of valves and components to the process control industry in North America. A coach, educator, and advisor to founders/CEOs of growing firms, he is a serial entrepreneur, having started, grown and sold several technology based businesses. Previously he held executive positions at IBM, Pfizer and Exxon.