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Edward Niedermeyer

Still 'Government Motors,' Recall and All

When Mary Barra appears before Congress next week, she’ll face many versions of the same basic question: How do you solve a problem like General Motors? 
Mary Barra poses with a metaphor for GM's archaic culture. Photographer: Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty Images
Mary Barra poses with a metaphor for GM's archaic culture. Photographer: Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty Images

When Mary Barra appears before Congress next week, she'll face many versions of the same basic question: How do you solve a problem like General Motors? It's actually one the representatives might do well to ask themselves, as the government bailout five years ago not only gave the company permanent too-big-to-fail status, but also immunized it from defect-related liability and, more broadly, helped further entrench the worst aspects of its long-dysfunctional corporate culture.

Problems of culture are not as easy to fix as the Business/Inspirational section of a bookstore might suggest, especially for those with no experience of other cultures. And remember that Barra is not just the company's first female chief executive, she is also a GM "lifer." Fundamental insularity has been a hallmark of General Motors ever since former Chevrolet chief John DeLorean pulled back the kimono in his 1979 classic, "On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors." Criticizing his former firm's "rigid" culture, inability to look outside for new leadership, quashing of innovation and inattention to detail, DeLorean warned: