Wanted: New CEO for GM

Posted 12.02.2009

Regular readers of this blog know that I have some degree of fascination with the auto industry. It might track back to my boyhood love of Hot Wheels, but I think it’s mainly that the current state of affairs offers so many opportunities to observe leaders operating in really challenging situations. The latest chapter in the story was the sudden announcement earlier this week that GM CEO Fritz Henderson had resigned. Since Henderson had been scheduled to deliver a speech at an industry conference in LA the day after the announcement was made by his boss, GM Chairman Ed Whitacre, in a hastily called press conference, it’s pretty safe to conclude that “resigned” means “fired.”

Fritz2 I have to say that I wasn’t that surprised. In April of this year, I wondered aloud if Henderson was the right person for the job at GM after his debut appearance on Meet the Press. In his first opportunity to speak to a national audience as CEO, Henderson offered no specifics on either the challenges facing GM or a vision of the company’s future. Over seven months later, that was still more or less the case. 

Mullally2 All of this stood in vivid contrast to what Alan Mulally has accomplished as CEO of Ford. Last month Ford, posted a quarterly profit of $1 billion without (other than the Cash for Clunkers program) any assistance from the Federal government. As I outlined in a post in early September, Mulally appears to be leading Ford to success through having a clear plan, aligning the culture of the company with the plan (rather than the other way around) and putting processes in place that encourage focus and consistent follow through. (If you want to see a great example of excellent leadership communications, click through to this video of an interview Mulally did with The New Yorker.)

So, what should Ed Whitacre and the GM board be looking for in their next CEO? I’m sure they’re going to get lots of advice on that front from a high end search firm, but here’s my 2 cents on the skill sets and experience base needed to lead one of the ultimate turnarounds:
Imagination:  You could argue that many of GM’s troubles stem from a failure of imagination. The ability to process and interpret global economic and political forces and extrapolate that data into a vision of how a new GM fits into the future will be key. Doing that will require a leader with the imagination to envision the future.

Communication Skills: The new CEO will need to be “camera ready” from day one. Translating that vision of the future into a viable business model will require the ability to educate and convince a range of stakeholders that should get on board with the new plan. That will require communication skills that convey authenticity and connection to lots of different audiences using lots of different platforms. Of course, communication skills don’t flow in just one direction. The new CEO will also need to be very adept at listening with both the ears and the eyes.

Focus on the Few: With all of the issues facing GM, the new CEO will need to be very skilled at prioritizing and focusing the organization on the few (five or less) things that matter most now in positioning  the company for the future.

Decisiveness:  Whitacre has made it clear that he’s looking outside the company for GM’s next CEO.  That should make it easier for the new leader to come in with an objective eye and make relatively quick decisions about the priorities for the business and the best people to execute on those priorities.

Culture Builder:  In an article he wrote for Fortune magazine, former federal car czar Steve Rattner described the culture at GM as one of “friendly arrogance” in which every decision required a Power Point deck and a committee and where the executives rode private elevators from the parking garage to their locked suite of offices. The new CEO will need to change the culture of the company in significant and highly visible ways for GM to be successful. Doing that will require a talent for creating the right mix of symbolic and substantive changes.

That’s a bit of my take on what’s needed from the next CEO of GM. If you were the head of their search committee, what would you be looking for?