The quandary is telling leaders – in a productive way – what they need to hear versus what they may want to hear
Tony Cervone, GM
Last month, hours after an influential sell-side analyst told his clients GM may be leading the race to bring self-driving vehicles to market, a dozen 2018 Cadillac CT6 sedans left lower Manhattan for Los Angeles. Through 16 states and the District of Columbia, we demonstrated Super Cruise hands-free highway driving technology that customers can buy today.
The trip wasn’t just about selling cars – although I’d be happy to sell you one. It was about communications driving business value by partnering with internal leaders and delivering confident storytelling. More importantly, it was about our leaders, led by chairman and CEO Mary Barra, who trust us do these things because they believe we are helping drive our company’s reputation – and business – forward.
It has never been more important to have the ear of the CEO. Mary once led internal communications, so she’s a believer. But that isn’t a free pass. Our seat at the table comes with responsibility.
The quandary is telling leaders – in a productive way – what they need to hear versus what they may want to hear. Sure, chemistry is important, but so is a sophisticated understanding of how to use and interpret data, knowledge of the business, and recognizing the CEO’s priorities.
In my opinion, Mary is transforming GM today through strong business performance. But first and foremost, it’s about solving our customers’ needs and desires. Delivering great cars, trucks, and crossovers through strong brands is fundamental to our success. So is funding connected, electric, and autonomous transportation in the future. And it’s amazing that she sees communications as her partner in getting this done.
As a veteran of three automakers and an airline, allow me to share some advice on how you can win your CEO’s ear:
More isn’t always more
We all dumped thick coverage reports on our bosses’ desks, yet couldn’t explain why they didn’t improve sales and reputation. Today, data and analytics help us tell the right stories to the right people through the right channels – many of which didn’t exist five years ago.
We have a saying at GM about working as a team: “Your problem is my problem.” For me it also means: “Your potential problem is my problem.” So we consistently look around corners to put on the table the reputational risks and opportunities before decisions are made.
Do the right thing, even when it’s hard
Besides the obvious, such as being truthful, it involves making tough decisions – from discharging underperformers to restructuring the business. When we sold our operations in Europe, managing the communications process was uncomfortable because it involved our colleagues and friends. It was the right move for GM, however, and the teams on both sides of the Atlantic handled it with compassion and professionalism.
For all of its changes and challenges, I still believe that comms is the world’s most exciting profession and my team members are turning in the most creative work of their careers because our leaders believe in us.