The chairman of General Motors has been named as the company’s new chief executive officer. Why do you care? Because this will prove to be a watershed moment in the fate of the company that was once the largest in the world. It was the one-time subject of many textbooks on the subjects of organizational structure, leadership, and management; “the General” became a cartoon version of itself over time. Additionally, in the eyes of some pundits, its fall came to epitomize much of what has happened, directionally, with the power and dominance of the US.
Consequently, for a lot of different reasons that go well beyond executive suites in Detroit, it’s worth a minute to noodle about the prospective outcome of this decision.
1. Is Chairman and CEO Edward Whitacre, Jr. up to the task?
2. At 68 years old, why would this former boss of AT&T, who had retired a winner, risk his reputation now?
3. Will the success (or failure) of GM forecast the likely near-term direction for the US, which remains by far the world’s biggest economy?
1. Is he up to the task? Maybe.
Years ago, when I was one of the leaders at DIRECTV, we decided to create some strategic partnerships with companies that were big enough to help us compete against the large cable TV companies. Those organizations didn’t like the idea of a satellite company taking “their” subscribers away from them. Consequently, we approached the heads of all the large telephone companies about a deal where they could sell DIRECTV service to their existing telephone customers and take a cut of the action.
One by one I did deals with most of them. But not Ed Whitacre and his team. They moved slowly compared to the others. He was savvy enough to have his team keep the conversation going but seemed reluctant to do a deal unless it was the best possible. Ultimately, we did a contract with his organization (at that time called Southwestern Bell). His company got a fair and good deal. That told me that he was clearly a good deal maker. However, when it came to making the new joint business run effectively — with his teams selling DIRECTV — his organization was not very good at all. They rarely achieved their goals.
In sum, he came across as a great deal guy and a strategic thinker. But how his company executed his strategy (in the case of DIRECTV back then) was not as great.
2. Why risk an already successful reputation? I’ve written a fair number of articles about why people who have retired from successful careers subsequently decide to get back into the workforce. I re-posted one yesterday for this blog. In short, based on public information, Ed Whitacre was successful before and he sees GM as an opportunity to show that his leadership style transcends industries.
3. Does the success of his tenure at General Motors provide a clue about the future of the US? Late last year I wrote on my personal blog asking if anyone could fix this company and make it great again. In it I provided suggestions I thought would be important for any leader facing a crisis. How this once-dominant organization deals with its survival can be directional for anyone watching how our country deals with the Great Recession and its place within the world.
Old ways won’t make the grade in any New World Order. Competitors — be they other leaders seeking the top job, companies seeking to “destroy” those with whom they fight for dominance, or countries that believe it is their time to take the top place — are playing by different rules. They are often stronger. Many will have the confidence that they have the moral high ground. Whoever is leading the charge, they’d better be nimble, thoughtful, and capable of giving clear direction to their “troops.”
Great leaders can make great change. We need more great leaders today.
Here’s to the future!