GM’s Fritz Henderson: The Right Leader for a Turnaround?

Posted 04.06.2009

Fritzhenderson1 This past Sunday was one of the rare ones when I had the chance to watch all of Meet the Press.  After such a big week of news (let’s just throw in a North Korean missile launch for good measure), I was looking forward to the show.  In particular, I was interested to see the interview with the newly appointed CEO of General Motors, the 25 year company veteran, Fritz Henderson.

Sorry to say, but Fritz did not pass the “Mom believability test.”  You probably have your own version of that.  It’s when, as I did Sunday night, you call your mom to catch up on what’s going on in the family and the world.  Like me, my mom had watched Henderson on MTP.  Her verdict?  “He was terrible.  He didn’t answer any of the questions.”  Nothing quite like cutting to the chase.

So, what can we learn from Henderson and the situation at GM about matching leadership styles with the demands of the situation?

In his book, The First 90 Days,  Michael Watkins identifies four basic situations that new leaders can find themselves in:

Start-ups:  where the task is to get a new organization off the ground.

Turnarounds: where the task is to save an organization that is in serious trouble.

Realignments: where the task is to redirect the culture of a formerly successful organization that finds itself in trouble.

Sustaining Success: where the task is to sustain and grow a successful organization to the next level.

Any debate about which situation GM is in?  I didn’t think so.  If you look up “turnaround” in the dictionary, you’re likely to find GM’s picture.

The problem for Henderson and the company is that the successful turnaround leader has to act quickly and decisively in calling out the problems that need to be fixed and then lay out a clear path for change that energizes all of the stakeholders.   No one heard that on Meet the Press this week.  Far from it.

Here are just a couple of examples from the transcript of the show.  The first is the second question that David Gregory asked Henderson and the response:

MR. GREGORY:  All right.  But you were there, you were there as this report was put together, you've been there for 25 years.  Where do you think the company misjudged its own reality and the way forward?

MR. HENDERSON:  David, I have been with the company 25 years.  Through my career I've made a lot of mistakes, as we all do, but I–my, my job is to learn from them and then look forward to make sure we get the job done.

As my mom would say, he didn’t answer the question which was, “Where do you the think the company misjudged reality and the way forward?”  The interview went on in more or less  the same vein for 20 minutes.  Most of the information that Henderson offered is already on the record as steps that GM has been forced to make.  There was nothing new or inspiring about what the company could be in the future.  Here’s the last question and answer from the transcript:

MR. GREGORY:  If GM lives to fight another day here, restructures in a way that the government deems viable and gets additional loans, in that new company, in that new GM, do you think you're the person to run it?

MR. HENDERSON:  I do.  In the end, the determination of who runs it is a function of the board of directors.  But I certainly feel that I have the experience and the knowledge of the industry and the knowledge of the company to get the job done, and that's exactly what I'm going to be spending my time doing.

Yadda, yadda, yadda and blah, blah, blah.

As I’ve written here previously (You Get a Car! And You Get a Car!), new thinking and new approaches are required at GM.  By its nature,  a turnaround demands disruptive change and the right type of leader.  It’s the classic example of how a leader’s job is to do two things.  The first is to define reality and the second is to offer hope.  Fritz Henderson did neither of these on Meet the Press.  He’s not the leader for the work that’s required at GM.

What’s your take?  Am I missing something here?  If you were in charge of finding the next CEO of GM, who would be on your “dream team” short list?