Less than four months ago, on Christmas Eve, our Saturn Ion (2005) wouldn't start. This was the third time in a month and we had already blamed the polar vortex and replaced the battery.
What ended up starting the car on Christmas Eve was a stroke of genius. We had always known the ignition switch was "finicky," so we tried a spare key: clean edges, rarely used, no weight on the key ring. It never really occurred to us that it might be the manufacturer’s problem. It’s just old, we thought. What we meant was, It would have been recalled already.
The day after Christmas, we took the car to a friend's auto service, where a mechanic replaced the ignition switch. It wasn't until March that we found out that, unbeknownst to the mechanic, it was just another faulty GM switch.
For us, the defect turned out to be a mere nuisance, but it proved deadly for 13 people (if you ask GM) or up to 303 people according to a new review of federal crash data. Ultimately 2.6 million drivers were at risk because the key's loose fit makes it possible for the engine to shut off while driving, which also disengages the air bags, power brakes, and power steering.
Who is to blame?
As in all company snafus, much scrutiny is being aimed at the leader -- in this case, General Motors' CEO Mary Barra, who just stepped into the role in January (having held quite a spectrum of positions, from engineering to HR). For some, the fact that she barely had enough time to let the ink on her business cards dry before being cross-examined at a Congressional hearing ignites suspicion. Was she being thrown under the bus? Were former CEO Dan Akerson and other GM execs appointing a "sacrificial lamb" to handle the bad publicity they knew was coming?
Many call that view insensitive, reminding us that Akerson left to be with his wife, who has lung cancer. Others kept the theory afloat by pointing out that, on March 14, he jumped back into the corporate world as Vice Chairman and Special Advisor to Board of Directors of the Carlyle Group.
I don't subscribe to these conspiracy theories, especially ones that suggest her gender factored into it... maybe because I'm sick of being pessimistic about women in the corporate world. And to me, it isn't surprising or unfair that Barra had to testify. It's inevitable. In fact, it's so common that there are blogs and websites and books marketed to executives of her stature outlining the best practices of congressional testimony. Toyota's Akio Toyoda had to do it. Apple's Tim Cook had to do it. Even Mary Barra's own predecessor, Dan Akerson had to do it.
Micheline Maynard of Forbes sums up my feelings exactly:
"Suggesting that Barra was deliberately made a victim is not only sexist, but it ignores one of the fundamental tenets of leadership. Senior executives have to be ready, at any time, to deal with crises. That’s why they are given responsibility, and why they are paid accordingly."
The fact that it happened so early in her tenure may actually work in her favor. Though consumers are angry about the crashes, the general consensus is that it didn't happen on her watch. All in all, she's keeping a level head -- absorbing the blame, apologizing on behalf of the company, and repeating the concept of a "new GM." New CEO, new GM. If ever there was a time to make sweeping changes, she can do it now, with impunity. And consumers might be more willing to believe that, with someone new at the helm, GM now cares about safety over cost... though the "Old GM," which wouldn't fork over 57 cents for improved switches, is still huge in the rear view mirror.
“We will be better because of this tragic situation if we seize the opportunity," says Barra in the video below.
I'm sure the families of those who died in crashes will never see this situation as a corporate "opportunity." I don't want to, either. But there have been plenty of companies who've used the fire to rise from the ashes. And absent any emotional attachment, she may be right.