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Change is a challenging undertaking that requires patience, endurance, and unwavering leadership, but human connection is the ultimate power source for true transformation. When communicating a brand’s evolving story, cultivating a deep connection with consumers and team members is the core task of every marketer. That said, translating technology into human connection isn’t simply using technology for the sake of technology; it’s using technology for the sake of humanity. Iconic marketing executives Deborah Wahl, Global CMO of General Motors, and Linda Boff, CMO of GE and President of the GE Foundation, share what that means as they lead global brands through energy-conserving and life-saving transformation.

Here is what they had to say on Visionaries and how it could influence your team, talent, and future.

Overview:

  • Transformation Starts with Casting a Vision
  • GE and GM Catalyzing Transformation
  • Cultivating Human Connection through Marketing
  • Leading Teams through Transformation
  • Fostering Connection with Hybrid and In-House Staff
  • Tips for Bringing Consumers Along the Path of Transformation 

Transformation Starts with Casting a Vision  

Deborah Wahl: Our CEO, Mary Barra, envisions a world with zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion. It is the first time someone stated the unintended consequences of this industry over the last century, and we’re working to create change towards an all-electric future of mobility with accessibility for everyone.

Linda Boff: We are at a different stage of transformation than GM. We announced in November the intent to separate into three companies in the next 20 to 24 months: aviation, healthcare, and energy. It’s a different type of inflection as to where we are now. Still, our brand’s commitment to the industries like precision health, sustainable flight, and the energy transition remain central passion points. 

GE and GM Catalyzing Transformation

2025 GM Portfolio of Electric Vehicles

Deborah Wahl: As GM transitions to an all-electric world, we have what we call a house of brands, including four brands ranging from luxury vehicles, like the Cadillac Lyric, the GMC HUMMER EV, to entry-level options like a Chevrolet Bolt, which is currently available, and the Silverado EV and Equinox EV coming in 2023, delivery vans, and other retail options. We are excited to introduce everyone to this portfolio by 2025. We are releasing a vehicle for every person, every wallet, every lifestyle, every deed, and family size. EVs are great because they are designed beautifully, drive incredibly, and have software capabilities and interactivity that will improve as we go. That gives us the catalyst for a fantastic evolution that’s going to happen. 

The GMC HUMMER EV offers a revolutionary available setting called the CrabWalkTM (it’s rear wheels can turn up to 10 degrees in either direction) to drive diagonally at low speeds, and helping it traverse tight trails with a capability that no other competitive SUV offers. -GMC

Unducted jet engine fan (UDF); wind turbines; Vscan handheld ultrasound

Linda Boff: As a company rooted in innovation and founded by the great Thomas Edison, we innovate at scale to provide sustainable and life-enhancing benefits leveraging technology. For example, on the left (see the picture referenced above) is a look into the future at an unducted fan; in the middle picture, you see wind turbines – technology that already is here today to address the global energy transition, but still a technological marvel. On the right is a Vscan, a handheld ultrasound, and while we don’t sell these at CVS, it’s like holding a hospital in your hand. A midwife in a remote area can use this device to provide health care to men and women in remote areas who can’t get to a hospital.

Cultivating Human Connection through Marketing

Deborah Wahl: The pleasure of marketing is all about connecting with people. If you’re not passionate about human connection, you don’t want to be in marketing. You’re missing the whole point if you’re not experiencing or enjoying this about your job. I always say we have to be fast and flexible, but, by all means, we should be all about having fun and sharing deep connections; that’s the core motivation of marketing.

Linda Boff: Technology is an essential element for us when connecting with our audience; the question is, how do you translate some of this technology to our various stakeholders? For a company like ours, where we don’t have the showrooms (like GM) for products, we’re always looking for some human connection that we can make. We must show up less like a big company and more as a human and think about how we can use technology, like platforms, narration, or podcasts (ex. our Cutting Carbon Podcast), to make meaningful connections.

Leading Teams through Transformation

Linda Boff: Transformation begins inside the company with employees as our best brand ambassadors so arming our people with the tools to be successful is critically important. We aim to prepare our teams, particularly in times of transition, so that they can be successful with their stakeholders and communicate our story. Nothing has brought me closer to the transformation GE is going through than being able to help people experience it and teach it from the ground up. Lean manufacturing (waste-free production) and the spirit of the lean mindset have been a big part of what we’ve been trying to do.

Deborah Wahl: We have a motto here at General Motors, “everybody in.” For transformation to take place, everybody has to be in, so we work to bring everyone together instead of just working on their independent projects. We have focused on collaboration, togetherness, inclusivity, and certainly diversity. I currently lead the most diverse marketing team we’ve ever had at GM; it’s incredible because we have better ideas, collaboration, products, and a more satisfactory working environment.

Fostering Connection with Hybrid and In-House Staff

Deborah Wahl: We have expanded with the move to hybrid working. Additionally, our CEO’s vision has been a highly motivating factor for most of my team. Not everyone in every company can change the world, but we can change our piece of the world. We’ve focused on the role of mobility and what we can do to save lives, impact our planet in the future, and redefine how people move and connect to what matters. I think that’s brought our team together, even though we haven’t been in the office every day. It’s changed the whole way we work together and how we collaborate.

Linda Boff: Early this June, we did a “Leadership Kaizen,” which is where you “go to Gemba” (the actual place of work) to see how our frontline operators are working and then create solutions to remove obstacles. Moments like that are incredible because leadership can see things through different eyes. It’s been a great learning experience, and I’ve also learned a lot about motivating a hybrid workforce. We’ve leaned into things like certain ritualizing aspects of our work that bring joy and comfort, and celebrating is a part of that. Recognizing people’s accomplishments sounds elementary, but these rituals have been a significant part of bringing our community together when we’ve had to be apart.

Tips for Bringing Consumers Along the Path of Transformation

Linda Boff: Borrowing the line of “everyone in,” I think there’s something about being on the playing field together around a mission with a shared purpose. Have clarity about your brand’s vision and the rules to get there, paired with a lot of kindness. I firmly believe that presuming good intent makes life a whole lot better. Having the ability for our audiences to fall in love with us through creativity and data is something that I wake up every day and feel incredibly glad that this was the path I chose.

Deborah Wahl: As marketers, we must remember that significant change only happens when you have formed relationships with consumers. We are obligated to set up our technology to do that correctly. Ideas are great, but they don’t happen unless you have togetherness, relationships, and development. If everyone can remember that, the transformation will come along at a speed and level of greatness that will benefit all of us. Independently, plan your day to take time for human connections, have honest conversations, listen at the human level, and do it all without an agenda. I believe in the positive side of marketing and what we can create, but we have to be purposeful about it. So, have your vision, have your missions, and go for it. I can’t wait to see what you all create.

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Visionaries, hosted by Nadine Dietz, airs every Tuesday at 9AM PT and is brought to you in partnership with The Wall Street Journal. Each week, two new visionaries share their game plans and how that impacts today’s teams, talent, and hybrid work environment.

Deborah Wahl, Global CMO of General Motors: Deborah Wahl, a pioneering marketing leader, is currently the Global CMO of General Motors where she focuses on driving positive impact for the world. Deborah’s love for transformation, innovation, and the power of marketing has created a fulfilling career. Previous to her work at GM, she has spent the lion’s share of her career in the automotive industry, and worked as a top marketing leader in healthcare, McDonald’s, home building, and circling back to her first internship with GM.

Linda Boff, CMO and President of GE Foundation: Linda Boff specializes in the multi-dimensional worlds of energy, healthcare, and transportation as the CMO at GE, the President of GE Foundation, and the VP of Learning and Development. She focuses on embedding meaningful marketing strategy and marrying the art and science of marketing while initiating change throughout GE. Previously, she was Executive Director, Global Brand Marketing at GE, CMO of iVillage Properties, part of NBC Universal, and had senior roles at Citigroup, the American Museum of Natural History, and Porter Novelli.

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