Since taking up the position of CEO at General Motors in 2014, Mary Barra has undertaken to transform the culture of the storied American automaker. As the automotive industry and other legacy manufacturers find themselves increasingly in competition with big tech companies for talent—in Detroit’s case, a product of the race to market self-driving cars—they have had to expand their talent attraction strategies outside their traditional blue-collar comfort zone and reach out to candidates with very different expectations and values, as well as more diverse backgrounds.
Barra’s approach to culture change at GM has focused in part on simplifying rules and policies that might strike this new generation of talent as arbitrary and overly bureaucratic, such as the dress code, which she shrunk from a detailed section in the employee handbook to just two words: “Dress appropriately.” Barra told the story at the Wharton People Analytics Conference in Philadelphia last month, from which Quartz’s Leah Fessler passes it along:
After replacing GM’s 10-page dress code treatise with a two-word appeal, Barra received a scathing email from a senior-level director. “He said, ‘You need to put out a better dress policy, this is not enough.’ So I called him—and of course that shook him a little bit. And I asked him to help me understand why the policy was inept.” The director explained that occasionally, some people on his team had to deal with government officials on short notice, and had to be dressed appropriately for that.
Earlier this month, Jeffrey Immelt was replaced as CEO of General Electric after 16 years at the helm of the company. Much of the coverage has depicted Immelt’s stepping down as a result of investors losing confidence in his leadership after GE’s stock underperformed in the past year, as in this Bloomberg report, for example:
Amid mounting pressure from activist investor Trian Fund Management, GE said Monday that Immelt will be replaced by John Flannery, a 30-year company veteran who oversaw a jump in profits at the health-care unit. In a sign of just how great opposition to Immelt had become in the investing community, the stock soared the most in more than a year and a half after the announcement was made.
This was not a snap decision by GE’s board of directors, however. In fact, the planning for Immelt’s succession began not in 2016 or 2015, but all the way back in 2011. Susan Peters, Senior Vice President for Human Resources at GE, shared the company’s strategy in a LinkedIn post, illustrating a thoughtful process befitting a giant corporation responsible for hundreds of thousands of employees and hundreds of billions of dollars in assets:
First, we knew it would take years to move potential candidates through the leadership roles that would develop them. We began intentional moves of key leaders to give them new, stretch experiences with ever increasing exposure to complexity.
By 2012, we wrote the job description and then continuously evolved it. We focused on the attributes, skills and experiences needed for the next CEO, based on everything we knew about the environment, the company’s strategy and culture.
Last month, a Silicon Valley executive told me she didn’t feel she could dress the way she dresses normally at work; she has to dress down to fit in with the “younger” culture. She said she never dressed that way in her 15-year career, and doesn’t dress like that outside the office.
For all the challenges they have faced in improving the diversity of their workforce and leadership, most of the major players in Silicon Valley have made a point of demonstrating that they take diversity and inclusion seriously both as a matter of social responsibility and as a business imperative. Diversity initiatives in the tech sector have focused on increasing the representation of both women and minorities, and these issues have gotten the most media attention.
The steps these companies have taken to make themselves more welcoming to disadvantaged groups are commendably, but there’s another diversity problem in the tech sector that I rarely hear spoken of as a focus of D&I initiatives there: namely, age discrimination. Until recently, this issue was easily overlooked, but a growing risk of litigation is making it more urgent for the Valley to factor age diversity into their D&I strategies. As Jon Swartz points out at USA Today, ageism has been the subject of 28 discrimination lawsuits filed against major tech companies since 2013:
The spate of suits are a reminder that Silicon Valley’s tendency to celebrate youth and newness can also veer into charges of discrimination based on age. It’s a problem that could deepen as companies pursue M&A activity and spin-offs. As established companies like HP, Oracle and Cisco snap up specialized companies to expand their business in newer fields such as cloud computing, the Internet of Things and augmented reality, they increasingly face the tricky task of streamlining operations and re-evaluating which employees to retain. …