it's a relationship


Faulty ignition switch or faulty relationships?

March 31, 2014

As General Motors (GM) CEO Mary Barra testifies to the what and why of eventual recall delays for more than 3.9 million vehicles the issue seems two fold, at least regarding the human factors. First, GM has a culture afraid of failure. Second, the world’s largest auto manufacturer has customers without a direct relationship to the company. If GM had solid employee and customer relationships these manufacturing problems would have had the attention of management much sooner. So, what’s an industry giant with more than 200,000 employees to do?


If you don’t have a strong, engaged employee base you basically have a soulless manufacturing plant perpetuating the Henry Ford assembly line of the late Industrial Age. And there is no place riper for a fix than the antiquated model of corporate culture in Ford’s legacy of the auto industry.

Report after report, from Gallup, FastCompany and Forbes, have shown that employee engagement has a direct correlation to bottom line results. “Engaged employees were more committed to the organization, achieved better business outcomes, and achieved superior customer satisfaction,” Meghan M. Biro, Forbes contributor, has written. Conversely, when employees are locked into a top-down directive culture they often hide failures and develop a groupthink mentality to avoid rocking the boat. These behaviors are the enemy of innovation. Hierarchy in an organization should be leveraged to fuel the culture, not manage it. WL Gore uses hierarchy to the advantage of its more than 10,0000 employees through a commitment to a “flat lattice organization that fosters personal initiative.” Or said plainly, as little management as necessary, everyone is a leader.

Barra should be asking herself this question: are my employees in survival mode, arriving at work everyday hoping to keep their job, or are they showing up compelled by a powerful set of personal up- and downstream relationships and growth opportunities? While this may sound a little soft and fuzzy, the results are proven. Harvard Business Review details the value between engaged employees and bottom-line results in their report, The Impact of Employee Engagement on Performance. This approach is more than a management fad or a nice-to-have perk like bagels or bringing your dog to work, it’s mission critical.


Once you have a strong employee culture you inherently have an army of ambassadors ready to drive the success of your organization. Now all you need is customers. And in GM’s case it needs a relationship with customers beyond the middleman of the car dealer. Here’s why:
across the press coverage of GM’s current crisis, you read reports of the many customers with critical information about their Cobalt and Saturn models having issues related to the current recall, starting as long ago as 2007. Beyond GM dealers, the customers didn’t really know who to talk to or where to take their inquiries. They felt unqualified to know if it was a real problem or if they were an auto equivalent of a Luddite. When I consider this it means customers didn’t have a real relationship with GM.

In recent years many companies have found ways to build tight relationships with customers by rewarding points of brand connection and providing access to exclusive experiences. And many other companies have tried and failed. The answer lies within an authentic and compelling reason to have a relationship in the first place. And, I would imagine car safety is right up there as compelling reason #1, with #2 being the role of automobiles to the American identity. These are both phenomenally strong foundations for a brand relationship.

The foundation of a successful company lies within its relationships. Employees, customers and partners all are the lifeblood of an organization, not an ignition switch. GM’s faulty ignition switch and subsequent recalls are the result of poor relationships. It may sound like a soft response to a hard question but the GM crisis is proof that if GM and its competitors don’t look to employee and customer relationships first, their future is bleak.

Faulty ignition switch or faulty relationships?

Charlie Brown

CEO & Founder


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