Master of Manufacturing: Jim Glynn, GM’s Point Man for Covid-19 Reopening

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This is the latest in our “Masters of Manufacturing” series, presented in partnership with The Indiana Economic Development Corporation. Each month we share insights and ideas from innovative, growth-minded manufacturing CEOs from across the nation as they navigate this tricky time in history.

Editor’s Note: Jim Glynn will share early learnings from GM’s reopening as one of the keynote speakers at our Smart Manufacturing Summit, June 3-4. Register now!

Jim Glynn has taken on some key assignments for General Motors CEO Mary Barra over her six years at the helm, but it’s possible none of them have been as important as his current task: leading efforts to ensure that the company’s re-start of manufacturing operations is safe for the tens of thousands of employees in GM plants around the world.

“I never would have imagined it ahead of time, but one thing about this role is that it’s been unbelievably invigorating,” the 62-year-old Glynn told Chief Executive. “Every day there is a new challenge and a new angle and a new perspective to consider. Sometimes we’ve had to pause and refocus and challenge our own strategy – and then push forward again. So sometimes we’ve had to take a couple of steps back. But over time, we’ve definitely made a difference.”

Certainly no other assignments undertaken by Glynn in his 41-year career with America’s biggest automaker have been as high-profile as the current one, which he is tackling as GM’s vice president of worker safety. Beginning in March, Glynn was tagged with a leadership role in the rapid conversion of the company’s Kokomo, Indiana, electronic-parts plant into a medical-ventilator factory.

Soon thereafter he was honchoing the company’s efforts to convert every one of its manufacturing plants to new Covid-19 protocols, and to prepare for this month’s cranking up of U.S. vehicle output after a two-month pause. Glynn even co-authored, with Barra, GM’s 48-page playbook for re-opening that the automaker has been happily sharing with its suppliers and other manufacturers.

Glynn is a comfortable right hand for Barra in this assignment. They essentially rose apace over three decades through the ranks of GM’s manufacturing and engineering hierarchy, historically one of the two prominent tracks to the upper reaches of management – finance being the other one. Glynn directly reported to Barra during that time for a few years.

A Buffalo native, Glynn graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology and earned a master’s in engineering at Ohio State University. He rose through the ranks of GM’s manufacturing, and manufacturing engineering, including an assignment leading operations in Mexico. Glynn became North American manufacturing manager and, in that job, helped oversee the launch at a plant in Hamtramck, Michigan, of Chevrolet Volt, the hybrid vehicle that pivoted the automaker into the electric future.

In 2013, Glynn was promoted to North America labor relations vice president and helped lead the company’s negotiating team through the 2015 talks with the United Auto Workers, which ended in a new contract without a strike. After that, he undertook one more important assignment from Barra: Shore up GM’s Asian manufacturing operations by spending a couple of years in China and South Korea. Glynn returned stateside a couple of years ago when Barra named him chief of worker safety.

So Glynn was already in place when the job of overseeing worker safety arguably became the most important in the company after the invasion of the coronavirus. Among other things, he’s been in charge of channeling Barra’s concern “that every people leader in GM understood the [Covid-19 safety] protocols intimately,” he said. “And she recognized it’s more than just the medical science. She knew there was going to be the emotional part to this thing that every employee would have questions about.”

But along with calling on his background as a very successful nuts-and-bolts leader in the Detroit tradition, it’s the emotional aspect of the Covid-19 shock that has earned a lot of Glynn’s attention.

“We’ve kind of shifted and pivoted to the emotional-safety part of the thing,” he explained. “I noticed that I’ve had some personal trepidation; we were sheltered in place so much that even going to the supermarket, you think about the virus and how it spreads. It’s natural for all of us to do that. So I knew that our engineers and finance people and line workers were all going to have some fear. So we needed to address that.

“We need to help one another through that. That’s why [Barra] has wanted to focus so hard on making sure people understand how the protocols work and why they work, to help people get through the emotional side and get productive again.”

As for him, Glynn called his current role “probably the most challenging strategically and mentally I’ve had, from the standpoint of helping people make good decisions. Because we’ve never come back from a pandemic before. So you can’t rely on the last time.”

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