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3 actionable insights with… General Motors global chief marketer Deborah Wahl


By Kenneth Hein, US Editor

January 25, 2021 | 7 min read

The Drum’s 3 Actionable Insights series asks industry leaders to give their thoughts on the actions our readers should take immediately.

Headshot of Deborah Wahl

GM's Deborah Wahl says 'everything needs to be faster.'

General Motors has great aspirations for 2021 and beyond when it comes to accelerating its shift to electric vehicles, dialing up inclusivity, and making people feel safer in every sense of the word. Global chief marketer Deborah Wahl shares her thoughts about GM’s three biggest takeaways from the past year, and what other leaders can learn from them.

General Motors peeled out into 2021 by announcing its goals for mass adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). Specifically, it is planning to launch 30 new EVs by 2025. GM also debuted its stylized new logo and kicked off its “Everybody in” global campaign with McCann Worldgroup and Weber Shandwick. The campaign is “a statement of GM’s intention to create a safer, more inclusive and all-electric future for all.” The Drum asked GM’s global chief marketer Deborah Wahl how they are planning to make this intention a reality and what advice she recommends for other businesses, marketers and leaders. Here are the top three actions she suggests:

1. Only give yourself 30 days to solve your biggest challenges. “We use the phrase ‘ventilator time.’ When we were challenged to help develop ventilators, we basically put everyone in the company into action, across the board, from manufacturing to supply chain to volunteers. From the first meeting to manufacturing the first ventilator it took 30 days. We said if we can address a challenge like that, learn how to produce it and make it efficient in 30 days, then there's no other challenge that should take more than 30 days.

Ventilator time is about speed and agility. Don't expect what you thought you were going to do is really going to be what you end up doing. Everything needs to be faster, decision making needs to be faster and then go. That’s a big thing especially in large companies where we have a lot of people to interact with to make the company work. It’s important. There are a lot of moving parts, but we have to really work at that ventilator time consistently and that means a different change in mindset. It is now the benchmark for addressing and solving the big challenges in front of us. It's really increased the company’s agility overall.”

2. Embrace the power of listening to each other. “We've set an ambition to be the most inclusive company in the world. I've spent the last year in intense conversations and dialogues and understanding and reading and educating and doing everything that I can. Our team is doing that as well. As we approach the idea of inclusivity, [it is about] how do we make the company be that place where everyone feels safe, cherished and feel like they can work at peak performance. Because we all work at peak performance when we're happy, confident and feel secure. It's amazing how that works. You get more agility when you do all that. The only way to do it is really listening and understanding the insights and understanding ‘did we say something that was offensive?’ How did that make someone feel? And not being defensive about that at all, but constantly striving to listen. We're really determined to do that. It all starts with that listening and openness. It’s going to be more important than ever as we get through all the chaos in our own country.”

3. Find, and activate on, an actual insight. "At GM it is ‘Everybody in’ and it's all in. So, it’s about all of us. That means in the company and our communities, we have to start working together on a much bigger level motivated by our common interest in what's good for the world, our communities, our families and ourselves. It’s a movement that we all have to start together.

It goes back to the point about divisiveness. Even within our companies we said look, ‘some people love their gas vehicles. Some people love this or that but if we're all in on the future, it's going to be a better world for all.’ And that goes back to, GM’s whole motto, we're advancing a safer world for all.

We went through the pandemic and really looked at what everyone's role should be in achieving social justice and eliminating systemic racism. It took on a much bigger import. The fact is that at GM, we start every meeting with a safety conversation. And when I first got to the company I was like ‘what is this all about?’ But you realize it's to create a world where we all feel safe and it's not just about a safety message about a product or feature. It is, how are we watching out for each other. When I was working for Cadillac in New York the safety message was do not walk down the streets of New York looking at your phone. You’re going to get hit! Safety has a much bigger meaning. Last year it was not only safety against Covid-19, but then it was also safety in feeling that you no matter who you are, if you're a person of color or who you are, that you feel safe at work — certainly as a starting point. And we started doing the hard work and then put that vision into inclusivity. All of a sudden, the idea of safety has taken on such a more important and meaningful role in all of our lives, what our companies can do and what we can do in our own time. It is meaningful and makes a great difference. I think that realization is coming to everyone. So that's where we honed it. As we saw the world change, we were like ‘no, this is really what we have to do like. This is right on. It's been part of our culture for years. This is where we really bring it to life.’ We're taking this idea of safety to many different areas."

Check out more of our 3 Actionable Insights series, and don’t forget to sign up for The Drum’s daily US email here.

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