Effective Leaders Know Communication- the GM story- Here’s How to Do Better

Effective Leaders Know How to Tell a Good Story- GM could not. Here’s How to be a Better Leader Through Communication Skills

GMReading a Fortune review of Ed Whitacre’s new book, American Turnaround, I was intrigued by the story of General Motor’s management communications challenges and the inability to organize information to tell a story that results in good leadership, organization, and action.

To refresh your memory, in 2009 GM was at the height of crisis. The company was mired and bankrupt. Ed Whitacre who had no automotive industry experience ( he’s a long time AT&T executive) stepped in as chairman and soon after he became the interim CEO.

The company’s executive team, practically GM lifers, could not make heads or tails of what the issues were and how to resolve. The CEO that Whitacre and the board replaced couldn’t change his approach to how to organize priorities, even after repeated coaching by Chairman Whitacre.

Mr. Whitacre explains that when he got there he stated to the  GM CEO that he needed to:

  • Get employees reengaged;
  • Communicate a clear and compelling vision;
  • Organize his business to be able to execute from points 1,2.

Mr. Whitacre discovered that the CEO had no organizational chart. He got rid of it but had 15 to 20 direct reports.  He was tracking details of the business and executive communication in his head.

This proved to be an impossible approach to managing the organization or to communicate the business status to the board.

After several months it was clear to Mr. Whitacre and the board that the CEO was incapable of telling a concise, descriptive story about the present and future of GM.

He simply could not communicate. The GM culture appeared to survive, chaotically, on complexity and detail. This very approach by design ensured that no one outside of the company could possibly understand how GM worked…or failed in this case.

Effective leadership is most often complemented by high communication skills. Here are steps to help understand how to be more effective:

  • Make the complex simple;
  • Tell a story to layout the main points of the broader plan with sufficient supporting details;
  • Establish priorities and critical success factors for action;
  • Make clear who does what and their accountability;
  • Use examples, imagery, and analogies to spark imagination and to reinforce main themes through storytelling for the audience.

Communicate concisely, factually in a narrative that explains a position, and reasons to go forward. This elicits understanding, inspires confidence, and demonstrates a mastery of the facts.

On the last point for emphasis it’s not that details and facts are unimportant. They are…

But mastery of such details and confidence in leadership is derived from the leader understanding the priority of the most urgent needs and actions. He separates the priority actions from secondary issues and communicates only the main points.

The style of leadership and communication is what motivates organizations to achieve great goals. I’ve observed a broad personality mix of leaders who are quite effective. There is not a CEO type in terms of personality attributes relating to communications ability.

Peter Klinge, Jr. founded his firm to help companies achieve their desired growth potential. The firm provides interim executive, project and advisory support.

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One Response to Effective Leaders Know Communication- the GM story- Here’s How to Do Better

  1. Kasteller says:

    Great summary and points Peter. Thanks for sharing.

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