You Get a Car! And You Get a Car!

Posted 03.27.2009

Oprah_car1 Remember that iconic moment from Oprah when she gave cars to everyone in her audience one day? “You get a car! You get a car! You get a car!”  Man, that was some great television.

Well, the fun still continues at General Motors. As reported in a story on NPR  this week, over 8,000 GM managers and executives are still participating in a 50 year old program where they get a new car to drive every three months.  And, to make the deal even sweeter, they also get free gas to fill up the tank. Yes, you read that right. 32,000 free cars a year for its execs and an estimated $12 million in gas giveaways for a company that has already received over $20 billion in bailout money and, according to the Washington Post,  will likely be recommended for more next week by President Obama’s auto industry task force.

How in the heck are we supposed to think about this? And, no, the answer is not outrage. Outrage is so last week.   Here’s my take on what this tells us.

Rather than using the word outrage to describe the GM program, I’d use another “O” word (wow, this Oprah vibe just continues).  That word is oblivious.  And by oblivious, I mean oblivious on a number of levels.

The first level is the oblivious nature of top GM management to not just continue but, in the NPR story, to rationalize the program as an exercise in “market research” and a perk that’s just too valuable to employees to discontinue.  As one spokesman in the story actually said, some of these people have really long commutes to work and the car and gas deal helps them out.  Gee, you think?  Sounds like a great deal; do you know how all the other people in the country with long commutes might be able to get in on that?

The second level of obliviousness is what’s fostered in the employees who get the free cars and gas.  If you’re driving a comped ¾ ton Suburban with 10-way adjustable heated leather seats that maybe gets around 10 to 12 miles per gallon, how likely are you to relate to the average customer when you’re filling up your 39 gallon tank for free?  Whether gas is $2.00 a gallon or $4.00, you’re just not living in reality.

That leads us to the third level of obliviousness which I hope is not perpetuated.  At this point, it would be oblivious to not require a change in the top leadership of GM in order for the company to get any additional government assistance.  Einstein was famous for saying that the quality of thinking that created a problem is, by nature, insufficient to solve the problem.    How could anyone say that new thinking is not required at GM?

The top leaders at GM are likely to be what I call “NGB’s”.  NGB is an acronym for “nice guy, but…”  As used in the sentence, “He’s a nice guy, but he’s not likely to get the job done.”  In the case of GM, an organization that needs massive and disruptive change, I think the continued existence of the 50 year old free car program is all the proof anyone needs that it’s time for a change at the top.  Please auto task force, before you suggest giving GM any more money, force a change in leadership.

As for Oprah, I think it’d be really cool if she’d give cars away again.  That could be a really fun little stimulus package right about now – and some great TV.