Cheri Alexander has infused her approach to learning with high levels of enthusiasm, vigor and humor. With her personal dynamism, she is pushing General Motors University into overdrive.
If laughter is the best medicine, then Cheri Alexander, president of General Motors University, is a funny pharmacist. As someone who earnestly encourages everyone on her team to laugh regularly, she may be the only learning executive who counts humor as a central element of operational strategy.
“If you asked my employees, they would tell you that I’m always trying to get them to laugh 14 times a day so that they’re healthy,” said Alexander, who explained that this laughter quota strengthens people’s immune systems. “I think that we have to laugh at ourselves because we’re not perfect. It takes the edge off the seriousness of things.”
Joking aside, Alexander is serious about making learning at the automotive giant more effective and accessible. She has an evangelist’s enthusiasm for spreading employee development offerings as far as possible, a sentiment she sometimes has to rein in.
“In this economic environment, I have to control my passion to spread learning throughout the world,” Alexander said. “With fewer resources and less money at hand, I still want to meet all the needs of all the developing markets. Right now. Today. But I have to control my passion because I know we can’t be everything to everybody instantaneously. It’s a challenge for me because I’m very driven.”
Her global focus has a lot to do with her professional background. Alexander started out at General Motors nearly 33 years ago in a role that concentrated on workers’ health, thereby bridging the safety and engineering departments of the company. She then moved to labor relations, where she worked on negotiations with United Auto Workers partners’ safety demands.
Her first learning position was training director for the Pontiac Motors division of GM in the early 1980s. She obviously made a mark, as she was asked to be the head of General Motors University (GMU) when it was created in the late 1990s. However, she turned the job down, instead opting to be the vice president of HR for all of GM’s operations outside of North America.
Eventually, Alexander did take over at GMU when its first president retired in April 2007. GM settled on her in part because of her international experience.
“The company truly had a desire and need to take GM University to a more global place,” she explained. “General Motors is really growing in the emerging markets. We’re extremely successful — and hope to be even more successful — in Brazil, Russia, India, China and Korea. With the experience that I had across the world, it seemed like a natural fit for someone who had an affinity for learning.”
At present, GM University contains 16 relatively independent colleges, each of which relates to a function within the company, such as finance, engineering, human resources and leadership.
“I bring the colleges together in a team of learning and performance managers who support all of the colleges to use common, global systems and processes. So the way the learning is created, distributed and presented to learners is similar across the colleges,” she said. “But each of the colleges develops their action plans and budgets and presents those to me, and I approve or disapprove. That’s all amalgamated into the GM University space.”
Content-wise, GM University is predominantly virtual, she added.
“It’s a virtual university. It is a virtual connection of learning and development activities that is global in nature. The colleges offer training and knowledge support for all of the major functions of General Motors. GM University e-learning can be accessed anywhere, anytime when someone has a PC and an Internet connection. That’s kind of my philosophy around learning: It must be available, it must be in the necessary languages and media, if possible, and it must be approachable for all generations and cultures.”
A small staff runs the technical aspects of the university, as well as the leadership college, at GM’s corporate headquarters in Detroit. Much of the GMU team is overseas, which means Alexander travels out of the country about every other month.
“I have part of my team in Europe, and I’ve visited them twice this year,” she said. “I taught in India this year and spent over a week there. I spent more than a week in Shanghai, China, and I was also in Korea and Russia this year.”
When Alexander is in the office, she keeps a busy schedule. She gets in her car at about 6 a.m. every day and usually checks voicemails or joins a conference call on the way to work. She also receives about 150 e-mails per day.
Part of this heavy workload stems from the fact that she takes a personal interest in GM’s population of young employees.
“I mentor a lot of young people in the organization,” she said. “The two areas of my job that I love the most are interacting and working with young new hires in the company and teaching leadership. I wish I could spend more time on these two areas. When I go into an emerging market and teach leadership to young people who have never experienced this stuff, I’m there 10 to 12 hours a day, and nobody wants to go home.
“Many of them have never been exposed to this stuff, and they just soak it up. Seeing the lightbulbs come on is really exciting to me. I’m pretty pleased that these young people are teaching me so much. Even someone who has been in the company as long as I have can learn new things.”
Also, even after assuming her current role, Alexander maintained connections with the company’s global HR function as a member of its leadership team, which adds another layer of responsibility.
“I truly lead an interesting existence between HR and education. I think the connectivity between human resources and learning and development is a critical space that needs to be operating in corporations. I try to make sure we’re fully integrated.”
This ties back to her learning philosophy, which emphasizes accessibility and approachability. For example, Alexander recently started a blog, which kicked off with an announcement of a new global new-hire orientation program. Additionally, she regularly corresponds with GM personnel both within the university and across the enterprise to ensure the learning function is focused on what’s important for the company.
“Giving guidance and helping my leaders in GM University is the most critical [part of my job]. Whenever I’m here, I try to be as accessible as I can for anyone who needs me. It’s the same thing when I go overseas. Typically, every week, I am interfacing with direct reports, whether they’re here or any other place in the world.
“I regularly talk with all levels of the organization,” she added. “I need to sense and respond to what’s going on through the entire organization. I need to have the pulse of General Motors, from the new hires all the way up to the chairman. I interface with the top leadership of the company, as well as my peers around the world in global HR.”
To improve the business’ position in the automotive industry, GM University has sought to form strategic academic partnerships. One recent example is the relationship it established with the University of Michigan. Through that collaboration, GM developed a customized master’s of engineering degree in energy systems engineering, which Alexander said will help the company in its research and development efforts around electric-powered vehicles.
“We are becoming the leader in the electric vehicle field and the advanced propulsion technology field,” she said. “To be able to produce this curriculum in half the time that we normally do and deliver this kind of program with the University of Michigan is exciting. It’s being championed by our senior vice president of manufacturing and our vice president of engineering.”
Additionally, she’s focused on a future that includes robust m-learning, due to its speedy, cost-effective and convenient delivery.
“I want to get learning into people’s palms. We’re not there yet, but it’s surely in my vision to stream video into handheld devices so we can be 24×7. I can see that vision, and I want it today. It’s not quite there yet, but I can taste it.”