The King is Dead! Long Live the King!

Night before last, I was watching AC 360, the Anderson Cooper news show on CNN. Anderson asked David Gergen, the former advisor to four presidents and current member of CNN’s team of political analysts, and two others, about the summary dismissal of Rick Wagoner. Mr. Gergen was generally supportive of the government’s position, but was critical of the fact that the government had forced Mr. Wagoner out, given that he had made progress in transforming GM.

Well, readers of this blog probably anticipate my reaction well: Firing Mr. Wagoner was not only necessary, but essential. So, let me take on the David Gergen’s argument. Imagine, for a moment, that a President of the US (whom I’ll henceforth refer to by the customary acronym POTUS) was at the end of an eight year tenure and he (think of Mr. Obama for now) had not been able to turn around the economy. Would you call him a failure? Sure you would!

Mr. Wagoner has been CEO for 8 years; prior to that he was GM’s CFO, President of North American Operations, and COO. A comparable track record in US national politics would have been Secretary of Treasury, (a hands on) Vice President and then POTUS. In effect, Mr. Wagoner had many more then 8 years to fix GM. Under the circumstances, the fact that he might have “made progress,” is simply not good enough! He has not delivered on the most important issues – GM’s culture, organization and strategy – and indeed, according to published reports chose to bypass these fearing that they would keep him from improving GM’s cost structure.

One of the other guests on the CNN program, an economist who supported the firing, pointed out that GM and Chrysler are so large that they account for almost 2% of America’s GDP. Consider this data point from a different perspective. We want our POTUS to turn around 100% of the GDP (while battling non-economic problems like wars, natural disasters,) and — by recent public criticism — do it in his first 100 days. Yet, we are OK with a very highly paid executive not being able to turn around a company in eight years that is only about 1% of the GDP?

Focusing an 8+ year role at the top on labor costs is leadership? Not in my books. Labor accounts for only about 8% of the cost of a car and on a global basis, as economist and journalist Ben Stein has pointed, even this cost is not wildly uncompetitive. But wait, he hired Bob “Mary Antoinette’s Soulmate” Lutz as Vice Chairman for Product Development and they turned out a few good cars, did they not? A few cars among how many? And what did GM do on core new technology? Oh yes, it caterwauled about unreachable mileage standards. Surely they were producing cars for Europe, where generally the laws are tougher and an End of Vehicle Life law already exists demanding near total recyclability?

No, the issues Mr. Wagoner chose to bypass – GM’s culture, organization and strategy – are the ones which could have saved the company. Had he broken down the Not Invented Here silos that existed within geographic and brand specific fiefdoms, he would have transferred innovations faster. Heck Saturn’s “no haggling” policy could have transformed the industry, instead of remaining a niche strategy. But that would have meant engaging with GM’s vast network of dealers in a new way. Think this does not matter? Then consider this: a couple of months back Hyundai came up with a brilliant idea to stimulate sales by addressing the fear consumers have about the economy. About the same time, I articulated a similar strategy in a radio interview I did that aired in the Boston market. How long did it take GM to do something similar? Until earlier this week!

The King is dead. I hope the new King – or kings, as I have argued earlier – come from middle ranks or better yet, from outside the industry. Ford’s Alan Mulally, after all, has been making faster progress and has so far, not had to reach for the begging bowl.

Category: Business Environment, Company Performance, Corporate Culture, Financial crisis, Leadership, Organizational structure, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , Comment »


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