Moving Past Diversity 101: GM’s Ken Barrett

After a career in the Navy, one might expect that Ken Barrett, General Motors’ first chief diversity officer, would need some time to transition. But Barrett said his biggest problem has been figuring out what to wear after wearing a uniform for 28 years.

Barrett, who has only been in the role since April, seems to have jumped in with both feet. It likely helps that his last two positions — as diversity director for the Navy and the Department of Defense — were also with large global organizations.

The global business aspect of diversity and inclusion will take up a considerable amount of his focus thanks to the company’s presence in emerging markets and its competitive product positioning worldwide. Ensuring diversity has an impact on global business means not just spreading diversity messaging among internal employees, but also expanding external relationships with dealers and suppliers outside the U.S.

Why Have a CDO Now?
As the first in his position, Barrett said diversity, which always had a prominent place in General Motors’ priorities, will be able to focus even more on corporate responsibility, primarily in North America. “Dan Akerson, chairman and CEO, he’s committed to this effort,” Barrett said. “He wants to be a leader in this space globally.”

Having someone to spearhead the organization’s global diversity will help to move the company toward a more advanced strategy that is embedded throughout the business. Barrett said too often people look at diversity and inclusion as diversity 101, counting heads inside an organization, or diverse workforce representation. But at GM it’s not just about counting heads — it’s making heads count.

For instance, inclusion means determining the best way to ensure the employee base is fully leveraged, empowered and engaged. “Are they helping to spawn innovation inside the organization and ultimately coming up with legitimate breakthroughs that help the business, both through efficiency and also expanding markets? That is the 301, 401, 501 of diversity that we want to really get after,” he said.

The talent piece is also important. It’s one of the things that attracted Barrett to diversity work. Prior to his diversity director role in the Navy he spent three years recruiting for the organization. He examined the types of people brought in, which teams successfully came together to achieve missions and how effective they could be when talent was optimized with solid leadership and empowered top performers.

“A lot of that is diversity and inclusion and being able to make sure that everybody has a seat at the table and can provide ideas on how you do your business,” he said.

Barrett built the Navy’s diversity directorate from two or three to more than 30 individuals working in an array of spectrums internally and externally to attract talent and look for it in new places.

“I did really well recruiting women and minorities in the areas where I worked, but how do you actually make this across the organization where everybody’s doing it, and then once it’s in how do you retain that talent? I was able to take it from a 101-type organization with respect to diversity and really grow it, to build an organization from the ground up and have it be a high-performing diversity and inclusion continuum that was embedded and really starting to help in myriad ways.”

He said identifying new sources of talent to promote performance and global success represents a significant area of opportunity for GM. Diversity means leveraging the demographic shifts occurring globally to find the talent needed to expand GM’s corporate reach.

He offered the Navy as a working example of how this has been done via its recruitment of women for work in submarines, one of the main line jobs inside the Navy where that talent base was not typically used. “There was a realization that we can’t ignore 50 percent of the talent pool out there if we’re expecting to optimize how we attract talent in the future and put them in the right types of roles so we have mission success,” he said. “It’s a similar type of thing from a corporate setting, and Dan [Akerson, GM’s CEO] understands you want to be able to leverage talent from places where you may not have.”

He offered the emerging markets as another area where diversity can create business impact. He said General Motors sold more cars than any other automaker in the last year. To sustain that leadership position in the market means closely examining all areas worldwide where the company can compete.

Barrett said sometimes when people talk about diversity and inclusion, they don’t talk about the business piece enough, and the business case is critical, as is organizational mission. In GM’s case, that mission is design, build and sell.

“Those types of things you’ve got to be able to tie back to your business to get everybody in the organization engaged in the effort,” Barrett said. “It’s not just going to be the chief diversity officer talking diversity in the organization; it’s got to be everybody. That’s a huge role for me as well, to make sure that leadership throughout the company is engaged, that it’s not just one, two or three people talking about it, it’s everybody, and again, having it be ingrained inside of everything that you do.”

Supplier diversity, minority dealerships, engagement programs via corporate relations and grassroots diversity communications efforts are all a part of that organization-wide conversation. It’s up to Barrett to create the overarching strategy, make sure all elements align and that the diversity and inclusion value proposition for the company is clear.

He said that means determining what success looks like, being able to clearly quantify what the diversity and inclusion strategy is, identifying arenas where the company will be active, quantifying the vehicles it will use to be successful, determining the differentiators to enhance competitive advantage and then staging the sequence of moves.

“Those four areas, the arenas, vehicles, differentiators and staging that we’ll take across the organization to move diversity and inclusion forward, that’s the No. 1 priority for me — to have this overarching strategy that encompasses all the different elements that are out there and working,” he said. “In the military they call it a force multiplier — the more that you coordinate, collaborate and align, when everyone’s working in concert, we’re able to get some of the efficiencies, more reach, more assets and then expand it.”

Leadership accountability and support is also important, as is creating coherent, compelling and consistent messaging from the top throughout the organization and externally from a brand perspective. “I’ll spend some time on that as well because I think the strategic communication element is critical for us,” he said. “Leadership accountability, tie it back to the business case, quantify it. Then they see clearly this is how I am now involved in the area to actually move the needles.”

You Need White Guys on the Team
The CDO role is often filled by a minority — someone who looks the part, essentially. Barrett doesn’t, but instead of that creating a barrier, he has turned it into a boon, and works to ensure other white men understand why diversity work should resonate with them.

He has spent time reminding others that white guys are diverse too, and even more time promoting efforts to find, attract and develop talent in the organization, including mentoring, getting sponsors and helping in the retention effort, all of which he said must be done by everyone, not just one group.

“I’ve been able to make that connection … but even I challenge being a white guy coming into a diversity leadership role — how does that get embraced inside your organization? What helps me is at the end of the day everybody needs to be involved in the effort. You need to make sure that the white guys are involved too. I spend time engaging the majority population in the organization and making sure they understand how it all ties in. That ties into leadership accountability and how they’re part of the effort.

“The other big piece is sustainment. You can go and get a bunch of stuff going, get an overarching strategy in place, get messaging out there, and we do all those things, but the big question is how do you sustain the efforts?” he said. “How do you make sure that it resonates with everyone and that the actions are sustained? Come back and talk to me in a year.”

Supplier Diversity at GM

Diversity at General Motors is a multi-layered effort, and supplier diversity is one facet of the automaker’s strategy to create an inclusive internal and external program.

  • In 1968, GM was the first automotive original equipment manufacturer to establish a supplier diversity program.
  • $70 billion has been spent since program inception.
  • In 2011, $3.2 billion was spent with diverse suppliers.
  • There are more than 200 minority- and female-owned suppliers.
  • 25 diversity suppliers are mentored by global purchasing and supply chain executives.
  • 2012 spending target is $3.4 billion.

— Kellye Whitney