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Just 3 Months In, GM CEO Mary Barra Faces a Career-Defining Storm


Just three months into her tenure as chief executive of General Motors, Mary Barra is confronting the kind of catastrophic oversight and subsequent scrutiny that could confound even the most weathered executives.

In a courageous move, Barra, the first-ever female CEO of a major global automaker, is affirming head-on GM's accountability for the 12 deaths resulting from an ignition defect.

After the company announced another round of 1.7 million vehicle recalls yesterday -- in addition to the 1.6 million vehicles it already recalled last month -- Barra offered an update to employees via video message on the GM website.

"Something went wrong with our process in this instance and terrible things happened," Barra said. "As a member of the GM family and as a mom with a family of my own, this really hits home for me."

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Barra, whose career with GM began in 1980, may even have some personal guilt given her history: she led global product development for the automaker prior to becoming CEO in January.

In releasing the video, Barra assumed decisive responsibility -- especially as it was the first time that many in the public had ever seen her, noted Joel Trammell, CEO of Khorus, which creates business management software for executives.

"You only get to make a first impression once," he said, adding that the video struck a seamless tone in illustrating that Barra at once cared about the problem and intended to implement appropriate changes.

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Barra's response, said Trammell, stands in stark contrast to BP's notoriously butchered reaction to the Gulf oil spill, where the company aimed to minimize the environmental impact of the incident and repeatedly dodged culpability -- "dwelling on subtleties that nobody cared about in the face of a real tragedy."

Instead, in the video, Barra explicitly outlined the steps the company intended to take, including: mailing recall letters and recall service bulletins to affected owners and dealers; adding a second production line to double parts availability; and dedicating a team of 50 customer service representatives exclusively to the issue.

The company also announced today the creation of a brand new position: vice president of global vehicle safety. GM veteran Jeff Boyer will hold the title, effective immediately.

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While the company has correctly apologized and released as many internal findings as are currently available, the public will be keeping close tabs on GM in coming weeks to ensure that its proposed changes have been enacted, noted Jeff Boss, a business consultant and former Navy SEAL.

"I want you to know that we are completely focused on the problem at the highest levels of the company," Barra said. "That is how we want today's GM to be judged; how we handle the recall will be an important test of that commitment."

And even in a corporation's darkest hours, there is always an opportunity for redemption, Boss said. "A tragedy like this is quite possibly the most difficult way to learn a lesson, but at the end of the day, it is still a way to learn."

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