Winter 2016

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Taking the Wheel at GM

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Taking the Wheel at GM

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Alicia Boler Davis likes winning. Here are some of her notable successes.

Launching the Chevrolet Sonic

Small cars are notoriously difficult to manufacture, sell and turn a profit on. That’s one reason General Motors, and the rest of the auto industry, rode a wave of truck and SUV sales right into skyrocketing gas prices, and eventually into bankruptcy.

So to make a small car in the United States, GM executives wanted a single person who could oversee both the engineers developing the car and the plant manufacturing it. This way, they hoped, cost savings could come from efficiencies and insights gained in viewing the process holistically.

They needed Alicia Boler Davis.

“It came out of nowhere,” she says of the offer to launch the Chevrolet Sonic. Four months earlier, she had returned from Texas to lead three area plants in Lansing, Mich. Her husband was still in Texas, selling the house, and her sons had just returned to Michigan. Settling back in, they weren’t ready to move again from Lansing to Detroit. But then, Boler Davis’ competitiveness kicked in.

“No other [carmaker] had built a small car in the U.S. in decades. How could I say no?”

Listening to the Customer Through Social Media

When customers moved online in 2009 to talk, rave and rant about their new vehicles, General Motors had to follow them.

But the company’s social media strategy was scattershot. Multiple departments of the company were trying different strategies, trying to own the platforms. Boler Davis decided to do something about it. She centralized resources and created a social media command center in GM’s headquarters in Detroit. It’s the company’s mission control, replete with 18 monitors on the wall displaying various social media stats. She forced separate teams into one room to hash out the messy details about roles and responsibilities.

“With the right infrastructure, governance and tools in place, we are able to help resolve real-time quality concerns,” she wrote in a Harvard Business Review article earlier this year.

The social media command center was tested early in its existence. In the midst of GM’s 2014 recall crisis, the company relied heavily on this team to communicate with upset customers. This caught the attention of the New York Times, which wrote that “social networks have become an important tool for the company to show its commitment to making things right, even as it tries to show off its newest models and build enthusiasm among customers unaffected by the recall.”

Around the World by Labor Day

Boler Davis was just appointed executive vice president of global manufacturing in June 2016. Nevertheless, she made it her goal to visit GM’s four global manufacturing regions — North America, South America, Europe and Asia — in her first 60 days. Considering that one of the duties in her new role is communicating with workers, it’s fitting that she completed her goal, with a trip to Germany and Brazil, in time to celebrate Labor Day.

“We do a good job of sharing,” she says. “Even though we’re a huge company, I always go to a plant, and they’re showing me something they’ve implemented that they learned from someone else.”

Boler Davis was appointed to this role in an election year that’s exposed the tension felt by blue-collar workers because of globalization. This year in North America alone, GM had to balance Canadian union contract negotiations with its continentwide investment strategy. Boler Davis’ deft hand is essential as GM seeks to expand its operations internationally while continuing to stay strong locally.

“It’s important that we have agreements that are beneficial for our employees and also give GM a competitive advantage,” Boler Davis said in an email. — S.A.