5 minutes with…John Quattrone, SVP of Global HR at General Motors

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Having risen from a temporary night shift with his father at a production plant to one of the highest-paid HR positions on the planet, there’s little Quattrone hasn’t seen in his 40 years at GM. But how will he manage the stress of the spotlight in the midst of a storm of controversy?

You started at GM in 1975. What was your first position, and what was your first impression of the company?
When I started, I had just graduated from college, and my dad had worked at the GM plant in Syracuse in upstate New York. So I actually started on the line as a summer replacement, and my purpose was just to earn some money because I wanted to go to grad school. I worked the third shift, so it gave me a good appreciation for what our employees do that work on the line. I did that for the summer and went back to grad school, and when I got out the economy wasn’t too great, so I went back on the line as a temp. My first impression was that it was hard work, it was good pay, and those people work very hard out there and we should never lose an appreciation for them.

How did you begin moving from line work to HR?
I didn’t want to work at the same place my dad worked – I would always be my dad’s son – so I was interviewing for jobs during the days, since I had the luxury of working the third shift, which was 11pm to 7am. During the day, a guy in one of the jobs in the office, a buyer’s job, got sick and he had to go out on disability leave. They had my resume on file and noticed I had a master’s degree, and asked if I’d like to fill in for this person. I said ‘sure’, and that was 39 years ago.

Did you ever expect to be at GM for this long?
Once I got to the office and I started to move along I did, but I never expected to be there in the first place.

Your dad must be proud.
My dad passed 20 years ago – he was a supervisor in the plant – and he would have been very proud. I had already risen up the ranks a little while he was around, and I think he had a great appreciation for that.

I imagine that working with a CEO with a background in HR would be idyllic for many high-level HR professionals. How do you feel about working under Mary Barra, with her experience in HR?
Mary is a great leader. She has a great sense of vision and fairness, and she’s an engineer by education and spent most of her career as an engineer, but where it makes my job easier is she has a great appreciation for HR as a true business partner. Sometimes when your boss has had your job, it can make it a little difficult, but not in this case. She wants HR to be a full partner, so I would say that it makes my job much, much easier, because she has an appreciation for both the role and the impact on the company that HR has.

What’s your vision for talent management at GM in your new position?
Obviously in previous positions a big part of my role has been talent management, and we’ve been through some dynamics in the last four to five years here, but I look at it in a couple of ways. I really want to focus on people analytics: where are the demographics; where are we going to lose people; how is the vehicle changing as you look forward. The vehicle is becoming far more electronic than we ever thought, so it’s pushing us to go after people who have electronics backgrounds and maybe a little less on the mechanical side. And then I look at it from a position of bench strength, so much like looking at a soccer team. If somebody retires, what’s your bench strength? Do you have somebody who’s immediately ready? And then also how do we bring in some new thinking from the outside? We’re promoting from within and bringing in people from other industries and businesses that might have a different perspective.

Stepping in to a position like this at a high-pressure time for the company can’t be easy. How will you manage the stress of the spotlight?
There’s always high pressure things that come with companies. Nothing is ever run smoothly; that’s why you want leaders who have good, sound judgment, especially in difficult times. I’ve been here for a long time; I understand the company. I know a good percentage of the people in the company, and so the stress doesn’t bother me. I try to stay cool and not over-react to things, and certainly not under-react either. And the role that I play, especially for Mary and my peers on the leadership team, is to have everybody sit back, take a deep breath, and try to give good advice and counsel. That’s a very key role when you’re in HR. The stress doesn’t really bother me; it actually energizes me a little bit, but I wouldn’t say that I get rattled very easily. That’s probably more experiential, because I’ve seen a lot of situations over the years, so nothing is really that new to me. I’m able to maintain a level head.

What will you never do as an HR leader?
I always say a good executive can have a great conversation with a board member and a great conversation with somebody who might be working the line at a plant, and those conversations would have no different tone to them. I’ll never forget where I came from or forget the people who do a lot of the hard work at this company who are very, very good people. And I’ll never stop listening to those folks, because sometimes you can get a little isolated when you’re in corporate, and you’ve got to go back and listen to those people that make our great cars and trucks.

What’s your favorite car?
The political answer is all of them, but I just absolutely get excited on our new C7, our new Corvette. I had the privilege of being able to drive a test fleet vehicle before the official launch. I would go into a drug store, or a supermarket or wherever, and I would come out and I would bet that there would be no less than five people standing outside this car to look at it. Some of it was the novelty of a new Corvette, but it’s also that it’s just a really exciting car. Yesterday I picked up the convertible model, and I was going up a busy freeway and I can’t tell you how many people beeped at me and gave a thumbs up on the car.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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