Transforming a Business Starts with Employees

Jun 29, 2017 11:45 AM ET

GM’s chief talent officer, Michael Arena, knows the power of culture and employees. In an industry that is poised for radical disruption, like automotive, it is critical to disrupt the way employees work to not only keep pace with start-ups, but to transform veteran companies. Arena’s core objective is to develop a culture where people feel connected and empowered.

It all started in 2014 when he asked the company futurist what will be important from a workplace and employee perspective in the year 2020. Four main areas emerged.  

  • The talent gap. There will be more than 1.5 million vacancies across all industries in STEM talent alone – a major call to action for GM. Now the company hires STEM talent every 26 minutes, and 35 percent of salaried employees have worked at the company less than four years.
  • Connected simplicity. People want to work for a cause that is bigger than themselves and at a place where they know they can make a difference. They want to feel like they belong, and not feel burdened by bureaucracy and complexity.
  • Sustainability and purpose. GM research revealed that 86 percent of its new employees would leave in their first year if they discover their values do not align with the company’s values. Communicating the company’s story, values and purpose became paramount.
  • Innovation. The No. 1 requirement students look for in an employee is “can I be part of the growth engine…can I innovate, can I create something new and revolutionize an organization?”  

GM then invited 50 millennials to a workshop to further explore these four topics.

“We quickly decided it’s not enough to bring in young folks, we need to bring in the middle of the organization,” said Arena. “So we asked those 50 to invite 50 middle managers that they wanted to play with for the day. Ninety-nine of the 100 invitees showed up, and that was the birth of something we call GM 2020 … a movement within the company focusing on positively disrupting the way we work.”

Co:Labs became one part of GM 2020 – interactive workshops that strike a balance between a hackathon and Shark Tank pitch using design thinking. Someone within the company recommends a topic or challenge, and then an employee brings in 35 of their friends to go execute … they build, prototype, and make something. GM ensures leaders are in the room to endorse the concept to help fast track the development cycle. Hundreds of employees have participated in these Co:Labs so far, with topics ranging from product design to performance management. Another initiative called Tipping Forward gives employees an auditorium stage to talk to their peers for 4 minutes about a brilliant project they worked on that year.

All the work GM is doing to transition to become a mobility company – autonomous vehicles, Lyft partnership, Maven car sharing service, business model innovation – requires different types of talent. It becomes a business necessity to effectively recruit and foster that talent.

“It’s no longer a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Arena. “We think about what are our core strategies and then leverage a bimodal talent management system.”

The company focuses on ambidexterity—running the core business and producing high-quality vehicles, while also investing in new innovations.

“We keep our growth engines connected and networked into the organization, but ensure they feel loose enough so they can truly act as startups,” said Arena. “You don’t just start a new company; you create that new innovation engine and at some point in time it becomes the new core.”

Between GM2020 and a driving a culture that enables people to make meaningful contributions to revolutionize an industry, GM hopes to win and keep the brightest talent around the world. Check out GM’s sustainability report to learn more about the company’s approach to talent.