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General Motors Mary Barra speaks on stage with Yale School of Management faculty in front of a large screen displaying the event's logo.

Finding New Roads

The road to innovation can be found both in our corporate and personal lives. And in spite of the many sacrifices, risks, and discomforts that often accompany this process, especially at its start, for those who remain humble and open to the vision of bettering themselves this can bear much fruit. The “fuzzy front end” is a concept in new product development that explains how many ideas for innovative products and services go through an “intrinsically non-routine, dynamic, and uncertain” phase. But with discipline and courage to navigate the stormy waters, high achievers manage to find direction through ambiguity towards the goals to which they have committed themselves to pursue. Oftentimes, these leaders pave a new way for many more to follow. And whether the goal is constructing the new image for the Camaro or engaging your family in a new challenge outside of your home country, the stakes are high and you must stay focused.

An example to the above, Mr. Douglas Houlihan, a 30-year old veteran for General Motors Company (GM), and its current Executive Chief Engineer and South America Product Leader, recently took time from his busy corporate agenda to share with the Master of Advanced Management (MAM) cohort some of the anecdotes and lessons that illustrate what it means to live a life of continuous innovation. As part of the Colloquium Series for our program, he candidly shared with us the details of his long career with this iconic American company that has recently recommitted itself to ride a new wave of innovation into the future while displaying “a renewed passion.”

This future certainly looks promising, but it is also uncertain.

General Motors faces tough competition from its industry peers. But the confidence that emanates from Mr. Houlihan and the members of his team (one of them, our classmate, Rodolpho Campos from Brazil), is unfaltering. The promise, of course without disclosing any spoilers, is that exciting things are coming our way out of GM's engineering teams, which seem to be the distinctive function in a company where the new culture excels in “knowing its numbers,” a feat that Mr. Houlihan clearly demonstrated while naming for us many of the detailed specifications of each car that he has helped to design: speed, power, torque, transmission. His excitement was obvious to all as he first ran his prepared presentation to later he give way to a more relaxed conversation that allowed us to go deeper and more intimate over cases of success and areas of improvement within his company.

The topics that Mr. Houlihan addressed were very broad, as is usual in this kind of meeting, with tough questions from an engaged global audience of classmates from Italy, Israel, Egypt, China, El Salvador and Nigeria, to name a few; questions about GM’s financial results in emerging markets, recalls, sustainable operations and leadership integrity and styles. But there was also space for exchanges with some of our American peers that had grown knowing and loving the old brand, but who recognized that there is true customer appreciation for the evolution of the new GM brands: "I used to have the Chevy Impala model for years; but after you changed it, what a sweet ride," said Sterling Grey from New York. For the man behind the re-launch of the Camaro brand, “the Legend Reborn,” the explanation for this success was to stay away from being fixed in the past, for there is always an opportunity to bring new hotness to the market, or the meanest-street-fighting dog.” A more recent example is the Chevrolet Bolt, the new EV (electric vehicle) with a 200 mile-plus range, that was just revealed this January and promises to be the new thing from GM to compete in an increasingly difficult market segment. However, these successes are not produced by accident. Product design must have an orientation that is needed especially at the fuzzy front-end. For that, Mr. Houlihan shared with us many insights, among them, the following:  You need to start with the customer, not with what matters in the industry, and this takes vision and inspiration. Each segment needs the right product, the right performance (as in “let the car speak for itself”), and a little show time (as in the robotic movie series The Transformers where the car actually speaks for itself!). And it takes team work, the modern kind that requires you to think globally, and leaders who are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to be on-site for the management of the nuances of these teams instead of sitting in a comfortable chair in the headquarters of a developing country. For those challenges, where coordination is difficult, you cannot fake enthusiasm. Real leaders will listen, work together and build trust.

At GM, as with a quest to prove that his company has really changed its old ways, Mr. Houlihan has walked the talk. He moved overseas to Brazil with his family and continues traveling the world to understand the complexities of the new emerging markets that have become very important to the Detroit company.

But all this took courage from Mr. Houlihan, professional and personal. On the latter, it was clear by mentioning his family several times that his decision to relocate in another country was not an easy one to take, for as a global executive, even having very special moments away from your duties to enjoy for example a college basketball game with his dear ones, he also recognizes the importance of being close and “here-and-now” when it matters. I personally relate to this situation, as I am sure that many of my MAM classmates also do, because we took similar decisions around our families in order to come to Yale to earn an additional master's degree.

It does feel sometimes like being in the midst of this fuzzy front end with its dynamic uncertainties. And the toils and rigor that we and our families face while studying in one of the most successful business schools in the world may consume at times all your energy and power, and make you feel unresourceful, especially when results are different than the estimates you prepared beforehand. But we know that we can come out of these challenges with stronger relationships, not weaker, as Mr. Houlihan expressed so passionately.

In conclusion, finding new roads may be a challenge that not many people are willing to take. And the fuzzy and messy road of innovation may be too much to bear for some professionals. But as Mr. Houlihan has proven throughout his whole career, in a manner that sounds very much alike to the 2015 Master of Advanced Management class, those who take chances and do not make excuses for the opportunities in front of them can become this new generation of professionals that will have a greater impact in this highly interconnected world.

Thank you, Mr. Houlihan, for visiting our cohort at Yale and for being an example of a successful leader transiting this path. We wish you the best of luck in the bright future that will surely come for you and General Motors.