Lessons from Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill for GM

I have written before that organizations take on the personality of its leaders. Earlier this week, CEO Mary Barra of General Motors (GM), reported on the findings of an internal audit of why they did not have an earlier recall when problems arose on some cars. Many heard a lot of blame down the ladder, but we did not hear much about culpability at the top. The key question asked, but not answered, is why did people not share their concerns with management that something was amiss? The unstated answer is it is in the culture of the organization, where people at the top did not want to hear of failings or heads would roll. An analyst who covers the car industry noted there was a modus operandi of “don’t mess with the launch of new line.”

I have written before about two leaders, Captain Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill, who was the CEO who turned around Alcoa and later became Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush. They have some good lessons that GM should emulate  going forward. Sullenberger was the right person at the right time as captain of US Airways Flight 1549 that he safely landed in the Hudson River. He not only studied accidents for airlines, he was on task forces to go to crash sites and help ascertain why the planes went down. So, he knew from his research and experience, what he needed to do to safely land in the Hudson.

He also knew what GM failed to remember. He was the leader of the crew, but he understood all to well that each member of the team has a role in the safety of the flight, including the flight tower personnel. His research showed that many accidents occurred because navigators and co-pilots did not feel comfortable offering input to the pilot or tower. A couple of examples might help. A plane crashed in Japan, because the co-pilot had to acquiesce to the pilot due to seniority. In this case, the co-pilot was on record as being correct that the plane was off course, but the pilot’s judgment could not be overturned.

In another, the Brazilian flight crew of a doomed flight did not have confidence to disagree with an American flight tower. They did not feel comfortable in countering the flight tower and the plane crashed. Sullenberger was aware of other examples that had been noted and improved over time. But, what he did every time he had a new flight crew (even one new member), was get them all together to get to know them and encourage them to speak up if they saw something amiss. Anything, even if small. He noted in his book, that what gave him great comfort during these few seconds on Flight 1549, was he could hear everyone doing their job. He got quick advice from the tower, his co-pilot and navigator. He shared his thoughts quickly and made sure everyone knew what was going to transpire. When he concluded that getting nearby Teterboro Airport was not possible, he offered up and concluded, “it looks like we will be in the Hudson” which allowed rescue crews to be alerted.

O’Neill joined Alcoa which was struggling. And, his first public comments were “we are going to make Alcoa the safest company possible.” This was an odd mission to start out with and many analysts were not impressed. One analyst told his investors to sell Alcoa stock, which he later added, was the worst advice he had ever given. O’Neill knew that the only thing he could get management and union leaders to agree on was safety. So, that is where he started. He also knew that for safety to be important, managers had to talk to floor personnel to understand better the problems, so that a plan to fix them could be developed. So, communication got better up and down the line. The empowered employees starting sharing ideas on how to improve not only safety, but process as well. The company performance and stock price took off.

Both Sullenberger and O’Neill knew that they were part of a team. They also knew the best ideas can come from anywhere, but especially from those closest to the action. So, it is not only vital, but imperative, that management create a culture where ideas can be shared. Otherwise, you would be flying in the dark. It should be noted at the same time GM was having these troubles, they missed a huge market opportunity. Why? Because they were not listening.

GM piloted the first electric car called the EV-1 in California in the early 2000’s. They did not sell them or market them, but a cult-like following was growing as people who wanted to make a difference started leasing them by the thousands. Eventually, the EV-1 was killed as the result of an alleged collusive effort chronicled in the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” which can be accessed by the link below.* The drivers wanted to buy the cars, but GM collected them and shred them. They wanted no evidence. The Board of Directors of GM asked why the EV-1 pilot was being shelved at the same time they were building Hummers, and management said this is the direction America car buyers want. Hummers are no longer made as they were gas guzzlers.

Here in 2014, GM could have been the predominant player in the electric car market, which will grow as more power stations and better batteries become available. Yet, they chose a short-lived strategy, made other bad decisions and had to be bailed out and only now are seeing the failure of not having an open culture to communication. The lesson that was not said by Barra is we did not have an environment where people could offer input and we would listen to them. She needs to talk to Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill and set a more open path for the future. It is not ironic, that both are known for safety.

* http://www.whokilledtheelectriccar.com/






8 thoughts on “Lessons from Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill for GM

  1. very interesting post.. i am not cut out to be an airline pilot, and hugh would laugh to hear me say that i’d LIKE to be discriminated against if i applied for the job.  if an control tower person countered what i thought was best, i would have a hard time ignoring the advice and trusting my gut instincts.. it’s their job to watch over the planes and pilots and know what’s best… or not.

    how great it would be to be in that pilot’s seat and know without a doubt, ‘looks like we’re landing in the hudson…’

    i really enjoyed all that you shared here.. thanks!



    • Thanks Z. Sully’s book is a great read. He truly is an American hero. But, he is so matter of fact and is a great leader as a result. I do applaud Barra for raising the issues, but the report she read sounds like it was written by attorneys.

      Will your travels bring you to the Carolinas or just over in Arkansas? BTG

      • Have a great trip and I wish for you the patience of Job and wisdom of Solomon on the related topic of diplomatic interactions. Help me understand….:>)

  2. The fact that GM found no culpability, at the top of the organization, based upon their own internal investigation, smells like 3 day old fish. Firing 15 underlings just proves that GM is the same ole’ same ole’ company it always was. The buck stops somewhere, and it wasn’t with a low-level engineer.

    The crash in San Francisco Airport a few years back was the same situation you described. The 3 other persons on the flight deck would not contradict the pilot, or bring to his attention that they were too low, and too slow. Thus people died.

    And being an ex-pilot, I always remember the rule that the Air Force drilled into our heads; the person holding the control stick has the final say…period. they’re in charge, and if the “tower” says something the pilot is not comfortable with, he is required to speak up.

    Great post, great thoughts

    • Thanks Barney. One of the analysts said she was hopeful to get a breath of fresh air from the new CEO, but has thus far heard the same old story. I do give Barra some credit for doing something, but right now she is giving an attorney’s talking points. The SF crash you mention was the one where they landed short of the runway wasn’t it? If you have not read Sully’s book, it is worth the read and you would enjoy it more than most. Take care, BTG

      • I tend to be leery of biographies from people of instant fame, but based upon your recommendation, I will get Sully’s book. Thanks for the support.

      • Barney, I think it is wise to be leery. His was different, primarily due to his desire to share credit. It is kind of refreshing in an age where politicians take credit for things they have very little or nothing to do with and deflect blame to others when they do on the downside. It is quick read, too. BTG

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.