In 2009, new General Motors CEO Mary Barra replaced the company’s 10-page dress code HR manual with 2 words - “Dress appropriately”. The move was widely praised as an example of enlightened leadership. Here’s Barra talking about it in 2018:
“What I realized is that you really need to make sure your managers are empowered — because if they cannot handle ‘dress appropriately,’ what other decisions can they handle? And I realized that often, if you have a lot of overly prescriptive policies and procedures, people will live down to them,” Barra said. “But, if you let people own policies themselves — especially at the first level of people supervision — it helps develop them. It was an eye-opening experience, but I now know that these small little things changed our culture powerfully.”
In April 2021, she applied the same philosophy during COVID lockdowns when white collar employees was suddenly forced to work from home, via a policy called “Work appropriately”.
In December 2023, the same Barra rolled out a Return to Office (RTO) push that was harsher than most companies:
“We are now explicitly requesting hybrid employees to be onsite beginning Jan. 8, every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday at minimum. Senior leaders will continue to have the flexibility to determine if a team needs to be in the office more frequently.”
One may ask - what happened? Why such a dramatic about-turn? Did Barra unwillingly give up on her trademark leadership philosophy because those darned plebs just couldn’t be trusted to work (or dress) appropriately? She certainly seems to think so:
“It said, ‘Be wherever you can do your best work’ and it slowly became ‘Be wherever I want to be’ and that wasn’t good for the business,” Barra said.
This is conjecture of course, but could it also be about the very slow rollout of the EVs that GM had promised investors in its bid to compete with Tesla? Barra, like most CEOs, gets a huge portion of compensation in stock grants that come with “stock performance” strings attached. For instance, Sundar Pichai in 2022 got a stock grant of over $200M; of which $120M was dependent on “creating shareholder value”, i.e. increasing Google’s stock price. Google has had 12,000 layoffs since 2023, and seen a general enshittification of is once-famous culture. Over at Apple, the vast majority of CEO Tim Cook’s 2022 compensation — about 75% — was in Apple stock, with half dependent on share price performance. And as much as they like to espouse grandiose principles, leaders, like all humans, are highly incentive-driven.
Anyway, does this rant have a point? I think it’s this: beware leadership bullshit. Know when your leaders’ incentives are not aligned with yours; especially when it comes to the oldest and most corrupting one of all: money. And if you are (or hope to be) a leader with some integrity, be upfront with your people about things. Lead appropriately.