How driving purpose drives growth at GM

The automaker's Craig Buchholz on how even an 108-year-old company can reroute its purpose journey.

GM employees prepare to make face masks in April. (Photo credit: GM).
GM employees prepare to make face masks in April. (Photo credit: GM).

In his first few days as SVP of global communications at General Motors in April, Craig Buchholz saw the world turned upside down.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, he had to stay on his toes to tell the story of GM switching from making vehicles to producing 30,000 ventilators in just a few months.  

"Few people in this industry had a playbook for a pandemic, even though we're fond of scenario planning," Buchholz said at PRDecoded's From Doing Good to Driving Growth: How an Iconic Brand Mobilized to Respond During a Pandemic and Accelerated its Own Transformation Along the Way session. 

Internally, Buchholz and GM leadership had to be adaptive to what employees needed, and externally the company reminded the country that it was innovative enough to help. 

"It wasn't a chest-thumping moment for anyone, but when the world needed something, GM was there to answer the call," he said. 

Through the upheaval, Buchholz leveraged GM's earned media time with outlets like “60 Minutes” to pivot its messaging from making safe cars to prioritizing the safety of the public. 

"As a company that's 108 years old, we get tagged as being slow and not agile or transformative," he said. "Yet in 21 days, we moved from full-sized trucks and SUVs to ventilators that can fit on your desk." 

Thinking fast but authentically also put GM on the right path after the death of George Floyd when chairman and CEO Mary Barra wrote a scathing letter about the lack of action on racial injustice in America. 

"Mary committed that GM would no longer be complicit, saying, 'Complacency sits in the shadow of silence,'" Buchholz said. "That informed how we created a structure around our words, our deeds and our culture, and we made specific choices that were authentic for GM around that." 

One of the ways GM is not only talking about diversity, but taking action to make change is the formation of its inclusion advisory board, of which Buchholz is a part. 

The board recognized the requirement for external voices that were connected to the needs of the communities GM wants to serve.

"We looked at the barriers for Blacks and other marginalized groups around dismantling systemic racism," he said. "It relates to economic opportunities, education and criminal justice."  

To that end, the board designated $10 million to an employee match fund that backs organizations that advance diversity, racial equality and social justice.

"On the inclusion board, the best marker of success will be putting ourselves out of business," he said. "Who knows when that day will come, but until that day, we're committed to making sure we continue to progress there."

Another hurdle that has sprung up in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is forced innovation in an industry dependent on auto shows and test drives to push sales. 

"We've had to leverage the technology available to us, and that gives us an opportunity to engage with those we're trying to connect with," Buchholz said, adding that GM debuted the latest Hummer virtually. "This new normal has driven innovation, allowing us to bring to market what our future actually looks like."  

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