“Culture Shift” is an Oxymoron

By Steve McKee

GM Takes Blame, Vows Culture Shift reads the headline. The above-the-fold, front-page exposé leads with a “scathing indictment” of GM by its CEO, Mary Barra, who “vowed to upend the corporate culture for what she denounced as a ‘pattern of incompetence and neglect.’”

To quote the Bard, “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Barra’s comments may not rise to the level of a smokescreen, but they’re certainly an act of frustration—perhaps even desperation. The company is so dysfunctional—what else can she say?

Pointed words and broad commitments make for good headlines but they aren’t going to fix what ails what was once the quintessential American corporation. It’s a good lesson for any leader whose organization is facing intractable challenges. As we’ve found in working with stalled brands in many different industries, external issues are often the result of faulty internal dynamics.

GM is a sick company. It has been a sick company for decades now. And sick companies can’t simply “shift” culture, any more than an obese person can “shift” a hundred pounds off his body. Culture is organic; it can be influenced but can’t (by definition) be controlled. Barra herself admitted that GM is still entrenched in its internal morass “after 30 years of similar crusades by predecessors.” How long will it take before the underlying issues are addressed? Is that even possible, in a company as complex and set in its ways as GM?

One wonders what would have happened if the corporation hadn’t been bailed out six years ago. Bankruptcy not only allows a company to put its financial house in order, it provides a necessary shock to corporate culture—the closest thing to a reset any company can hope for. But that long-overdue cleansing wasn’t allowed to happen at GM because, as has been its pattern, the company (and the politicians who enable it) sought the easy way out.

Just six months ago, when the federal government sold its final GM shares (soaking taxpayers with a net loss of ten billion dollars, thankyouverymuch), GM’s then-CEO Dan Akerson said, “The U.S. Treasury’s ownership exit closes just one chapter in GM’s ongoing turnaround story. We will always be grateful for the second chance extended to us and we are doing our best to make the most of it.”

Fast forward to today. GM is being dismissed by car buyers, investigated by the Justice Department, probed by the SEC, targeted by plaintiffs’ attorneys and even scrutinized by Congress. “Ongoing turnaround story,” indeed.

The lesson? Don’t be GM. If you’re dealing with cultural issues, structural idiosyncrasies, or any other internal dynamics that hinder your ability to affect true and lasting change, face the facts. Don’t blame your advertising, your competitors, fickle consumers, trade policy or even the lame economy. And don’t look for a bailout, merger or other distraction that punts the problem down the road. No CEO can control a corporation’s culture, but neither should he or she be immobilized by it. Problems that go unaddressed only get worse.

Steve McKee

Co-founder and author, Steve specializes in addressing the most meaningful problems. Call Steve when you want to change the world. He’ll have a thought (and some research) on that.

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