Holding An Executive Accountable For Diversity

Though diversity has long been a priority for General Motors, it wasn’t until 2012 that the company finally put a face to its inclusion efforts, bringing in a man who championed diversity within the U.S. Navy as the company’s first chief diversity officer.

In this role, Ken Barrett has spent the last three years building on existing diversity and inclusion efforts and working to make sure those efforts were reflected at every level of the company. Through instituting women’s councils and sponsoring events such as the 40th Anniversary Conference of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, Barrett has used his new position to provide support to the female and minority communities at GM. Below are edited excerpts from Barrett’s interview with Diversity Executive.

What have you done to improve GM's diversity and inclusion efforts since joining the company in 2012?

Starting with our leadership, GM is committed to leveraging diversity and inclusion throughout our organization with the goal of being the company, workplace and business partner of choice for our employees, dealers, suppliers and customers. From the top down, diversity and inclusion are no longer seen as “nice-to-haves” but rather a business priority for today’s GM. Through strategic leadership and with support from the executive leadership team on diversity initiatives, I am able to help ensure that GM’s diversity agenda is understood and being implemented/embraced cross-functionally and globally.

Additionally, I advocated for better alignment of diversity efforts internally, which helped to support the creation of the GM Diversity Marketing Center of Excellence. Also, GM has 18 global women’s councils, and through the efforts of my office, they are now a collaborative global network. The councils meet monthly to share best practices with respect to events, initiatives and work-life balance. In June, we will plan to host GM’s first Women’s Global Summit.

How has your experience as the U.S. Navy's Diversity Director translated to GM?

Ken Barrett, CDO of GM
Ken Barrett, General Motors

The U.S. Navy has a long tradition with focus on achieving the mission. Further, emphasis is placed on finding the best and brightest talent and having a navy that is reflective of the citizens they serve. Opening up submarines to women showcases the emphasis the U.S. Navy places on employing talent from every segment of society.

As a global company, being able to attract talent with different perspectives is critical to infuse new ideas, spark innovation, and gain/keep the competitive edge. Being open to employing a full spectrum of talent including race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation and regional/cultural expertise helps GM drive diversity forward. Being committed to be representative of the customers we hope to sell to is similar to the U.S. Navy’s focus.

In your experience both in the U.S. Navy and at GM, which areas of diversity and inclusion are in most need of attention?

I feel often the biggest challenge is opening the aperture with respect to talent. Organizations often look in the same place — fish in the same ponds, if you will — to find their talent. By broadening that search, you avail your organizations to talent pools that you never considered previously.

How can those areas be improved upon?

Communication is the key. It is through effective communication that we’ve delivered on great opportunities like GM’s Visionary Sponsorship of the 40th Anniversary Conference of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, held in Detroit this past November. For anyone that thinks there isn’t enough Hispanic talent out there, the SHPE Conference offered an opportunity to engage with 5,000 talented and skilled Hispanics that are pursuing careers in engineering. GM deployed recruiters and staff to engage with SHPE participants during the five-day conference making job offers on the spot.

What can/should other companies be doing in order to increase their own diversity and inclusion efforts?

The first step is to have a collective understanding of what diversity means within your respective organization. Once it is understood organizationally that diversity and inclusion is a competitive advantage, the behavioral shift in terms of how diversity and inclusion are implemented in everyday business practices becomes easier to achieve.

Also look for support and executive champions in non-traditional groups and areas of your company; you do not have to be a minority or a woman to support diversity and inclusion.

Why do you believe diversity in the workplace is important?

At GM, the wide array of backgrounds, perspectives and experiences represented by our global workforce is critical to meeting the challenges and opportunities in the marketplace. Our employees are empowered to infuse new ideas to keep us on the cutting-edge of innovation in the global marketplace. We understand that diversity is our strength.