During the Civil War, General George McClellan headed the largest army in the North. McClellan was an astounding capable soldier– except for the part about fighting and winning a war. He was also insubordinate, rude and a potential political rival for President Lincoln. The president’s Cabinet recommended McClellan’s dismissal. “Who should replace him?” Lincoln asked. “Anybody!” they replied. “I can’t give the job to ‘anybody,’” Lincoln argued. “It will have to be a “somebody.” In the same sense, who can replace GM CEO Rick Wagoner?
It’s true: Rick Wagoner’s career is toast. And not a moment too late. By any metric you can name– profits, market share, market capitalization, debt load, brand strength, anything– Wagoner’s administration has been an unmitigated disaster. In fact, the feds missed an important opportunity to eject Wagoner in exchange for bailout billions. Never mind; his day is done.
But replacing CEO Rick Wagoner won’t be easy. Using a more modern comparison, securing a new General Manager for a professional football team is a walk in the park. There are perhaps fifty candidates who are more-or-less qualified to run an NFL team. Anyone who is anyone in the business knows who they are. Finding someone with the experience to run a global automaker– with millions of sales, dozens of factories and worldwide reach– is a relative bitch.
There are far less international automakers than NFL franchisees.The pool of available managerial talent for GM is a lot smaller than, say, The Detroit Lions. While football teams play with one set of rules using more-than-not similar strategies, carmakers must build hideously complex products (on a five-year timeline) that compete for different customers, subject to thousands of rules, all of which are subject to constant change. Finding someone who fully understands the game, never mind how to win it, is “challenging.”
Worse, GM is a closed society. There are fiefdoms within fiefdoms within fiefdoms. Employees have national, brand, departmental and personal loyalties (to name a few). It’s not for nothing that one of today’s blogs revealed that the man in charge of GM’s Strasbourg plant holds a Harvard MBA– just like his CEO and COO. And if you think intra-mural talent is the answer, look at ex-Toyota exec Jim Press’ progress at Chrysler.
Not only would it be hard for an outsider to get accurate information about what’s going on at GM’s sharp end (or filter what info he or she gets), it would be even harder to ensure that necessary changes are implemented.
Mulally at Ford? Nardelli at Chrysler? Apples and oranges. The Ford family owns enough special stock give Mulally the authority he needs. Same goes for private equity group Cerberus and Nardelli. GM has no single shareholder or directors’ block. Anyone who managed to displace GM’s existing mob would need the support of the board and, realistically, the division heads.
Bottom line: unless the GM board was displaced and company’s current infrastructure destroyed, any replacement boss would “have to be” one of GM’s lower bosses. Not that it matters.
Two years after his Cabinet called for McClellan’s head, Lincoln found his “someone.” General Grant discovered that his new/old army was nowhere near the smooth-running machine he’d had out West. One of Grant’s staff offered a simple solution: get Eli Parker (the judge advocate) drunk on the worst whiskey available, give him a knife and tell him to bring back ten major-general’s scalps. Grant was intrigued, “which ones?”
Wrong answer. Grant’s problem wasn’t so much the individual major-generals as the fact there were too damn many of them.
And so it is with GM. Once again, the root of all evil is logistical inertia, or lack thereof. General Motors North America is hamstrung by its surplus of brands; hence products, dealers, marketing and mandarins. Even with GM’s new “four channel” internal and external realignment– HUMMER, Cadillac, Saab; Buick, Pontiac, GMC; Saturn and Chevy– there still are too many hungry mouths too feed. And execs feeding them.
GM’s size was once its main advantage. It’s now its greatest weakness. With the U.S. market shrinking and share dropping, all that once-impressive industrial might just means more to cut. Worse, the sheer size of the company makes it very hard to cut effectively. Every cut must be filtered through the demands of four or more “lines” and double that number of brands. Worse, each change disrupts the balance of power between the divisions within the company and on the market.
Finding another “someone” to create effective regime change at GM, someone who can act decisively then track and balance the progress of his or her changes, could well be impossible. But it’s worth a try. As for the current administration at GM, let’s give “Honest Abe” the last word. “Stand with anybody that stands right, stand with him while he is right and part with him when he goes wrong.”