GM needs all on same page

March 11, 2011 http://detnews.com/article/20110311/OPINION03/103110384

GM needs all on same page

DANIEL HOWES

The imminent departure of Chief Financial Officer Chris Liddell, on the job less than 15 months, is predictably igniting another bout of angst about “instability” atop General Motors Co.

But given the track record of the automaker’s epic stability — an established executive corps running a debt-laden, sclerotic behemoth all the way into bankruptcy — maybe that’s not the worst thing that could happen there.

To be clear: Few sane companies, and GM is no exception, would willingly change CEOs four times in two years anymore than they would change strategy that often. Nor would they choose to run through three CFOs in the same time with the largest initial public offering in American history sandwiched in between.

If changing just to change is what’s really behind the musical chairs orchestrated by CEO Daniel Akerson, Liddell’s confirmed itch to run his own show and a new head of global product development, to name two recent examples, then Akerson and GM’s directors deserve whatever turmoil churns their way. No one, this side of the geniuses at former Chrysler Group owner Cerberus Capital Management LLP, can be that willfully dense.

A more logical explanation, considering GM’s past: “If Dan is trying to create anything around here,” a ranking insider close to the situation said Thursday, “it’s a state of urgency. We can start to change the culture inside the building.”

Yes, they can. And the history of change inside GM is that it’s most positive results have been delivered by disruptive forces — can you say, “Bob Lutz?” — and such calculated risk-taking as former Chairman Jack Smith’s gambits in China and Russia. In retrospect, each turned out to be crucial pieces of the old GM deemed worth saving.

Put simply: GM does its best work when it pushes, or is pushed, beyond the confines of its comfort zone. Look at the reimagination of Cadillac, now a credible luxury brand, or the renewal of Buick. Or GM’s enviable success in developing markets. Or the positioning and potential of OnStar. Or the technological promise of the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car.

None of it came easily to an organization that, whether it wants to admit it or not, long assumed that showing up is 90 percent of the road to success. It isn’t, as Akerson frequently reminds people who listen. He wants to win, and he’s concluded that he needs a complete team with each player running the same play to get there — kinda’ like Ford Motor Co.’s Alan Mulally, Detroit’s gazillion-dollar Wunderkind.

Enter Liddell, the soon-to-be-former CFO. In remarks Thursday, he left little doubt that his days as a chief financial officer are over and signaled what has been known for some time. He wants to run his own company, and the chance to do that at GM passed when the directors appointed Akerson to replace Ed Whitacre last September.

Liddell could have bolted then, of course, but he really couldn’t have done any such thing. Not when GM was preparing, at the insistence of the Obama Treasury Department, to engineer what turned out to be the nation’s largest IPO. By staying, Liddell burnished his financial markets cred, completed the repair of GM’s dreadful financial operations, reaped any year-end bonuses from a near-record year and got out before the feds move to sell more of their shares in GM.

For a guy preparing to get married at month’s end, a guy who clearly wants to be a CEO, leaving now is about as good as it was gonna’ get. He pressed Akerson for a bigger job at GM — to the extent there are any besides CEO or creating a new job — but that wasn’t going to happen, partly because of the pressing itself.

Why? The best hope Akerson has of delivering sustainable profitability by selling competitive cars and trucks around the world rests in a team whose members are committed for terms measured in more than months. Could a guy who wanted the top job at GM, or somewhere else, be counted on to run the plays drawn by someone else?

One of the keys to Mulally’s success at Ford is his knack for focusing his people on executing the Ford strategy, not myriad personal strategies. The task is no different for Akerson, clearly grasping to assemble a team that shares the senses of urgency and change that should follow a harrowing bankruptcy.

“We don’t need chaos,” Akerson has told associates. “We need to execute like a crisp team.”

True, and executing begins with leadership. Liddell’s departure, whatever the chops of his successor, Treasurer Daniel Ammann, fuels more speculation of turmoil in GM’s C-suite. It was telling that the only notable words from GM’s new CFO Thursday were his explicit declaration of a “long-term commitment” to GM. Fine.

But at some point, Akerson and a cohesive team have to play the game by delivering profitable quarters, by reloading the product pipeline, by replacing the sense of continuing “off-with-their-heads” drama with a team that acts like one focused in the same direction. And at some point, the folks a level or two or three down from GM’s governing Executive Committee need to choose whether they want to be part of the solution or part of the problem.

The results will speak for themselves, from the CEO’s office on down to the plant floor — which is the only way to turn skepticism into respect.

dchowes@detnews.com

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