Editorial: Why GM Doesn't Need A "Car Guy" CEO

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh
editorial why gm doesn t need a car guy ceo

Car guys know exactly what’s wrong with GM: car guys like them aren’t running the show. Otherwise, every Chevrolet, GMC, Buick, and Cadillac would look “great” (no need to be more specific) and dust the competition. Hence Bill Ford’s decision to hire Alan Mulally to take over as CEO came as a real disappointment. Obviously, he would have done better hiring anyone who truly knows and loves cars better than a Lexus-driving Boeing executive.

Sorry, CarNut4CEO. It just wasn’t so in Ford’s case. And it’s just not so in GM’s case, either.

Every auto enthusiast has done it. We’ve all figured we’d do a much better job running GM than the suits in the Ren Cen. In design competitions, we’d pick the sexy themes, not the ugly ones. Focus groups wouldn’t have a say. We’d command the engineers to create direct-injected twin-charged dual-variable-cammed engines that rev smooth as silk and sing songs of pure adrenaline. There’d be no more slushboxes. No more front-wheel-drive, either. Every suspension would be firmly damped. Every bucket seat would be solidly bolstered. Cheap plastic would be banned and every bit of trim perfectly aligned.

The problem is, most car buyers don’t know much about VVT. What they do know is they aren’t going to pay much for things that have no obvious impact on getting from Point A to Point B. Their eyes, fingertips and rear ends don’t see and feel the same things as those of car guys.

What do most car buyers want? Guess at your own peril. You can scrape the surface by asking them. You can observe how they use their cars at rest stops and parking lots. You can try to walk in their shoes, perhaps even going so far as to don costumes that simulate the experience of being encumbered by arthritis, pregnancy, or nails and heels. Do this long enough and intensively enough, and you might figure them out. Then you’ve got to translate what you’ve learned into the thousands of details that comprise a car — from the curve of the fender to every last button and switch. Do this right and all of these bits cohere into a “gotta have” for that car buyer (who hopefully isn’t unique).

You don’t have nearly enough time to do all of this yourself. The thousands of decisions that constitute an automobile’s design require contributions from hundreds of people. Ideally, the people who know the customer and the people who style and engineer all of the bits work together seamlessly, accepting and melding one another’s expertise to create an appealing, coherent whole. And let’s not forget the dreaded “bean counters”: this whole has to be affordable. Achieving this synthesis might be the most difficult task in the world.

Nor can you simply hire the best and the brightest and simply toss them into a room together. A program team needs a leader to pull everyone together around a customer-based product vision. Even this mid-level executive can’t know everything or get fully involved in every decision. He’s got to develop a team capable of creating this synthesis, and he’s got to be able to let them do it.

GM’s CEO is at least three levels removed from the corporation’s product program managers, who are themselves a few levels above the grunts in the trenches. If, after a twenty-slide PowerPoint presentation, this CEO can make better decisions about product details than the team that has lived and breathed the product and market, then something is wrong. It doesn’t matter how car-smart this CEO is. If the program team is decent, then no exec’s that brilliant. If the team isn’t decent, then game over.

Nevertheless, senior car company execs frequently step in and make such decisions. The media legitimizes this meddling, lauding gutsy top execs who make snap product decisions. There’s no glory in letting the grunts do their jobs. Finally, corporate politics can push each executive to prove that he knows more than the other guy does while second-guessing every decision the other guy makes.

In this environment, it takes a tough exec to let the experts be the experts, to put the processes and organization in place that will foster great teams and let these teams do their job. This strategy isn’t romantic. It doesn’t make for dramatic headlines. It’s not something that those of us outside a car company can see and comprehend. It’s just what Ford got with Mulally and what GM needs from its new CEO.

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  • DearS DearS on Dec 05, 2009

    Mullally went with a Lexus instead of a Cadillac or Lincoln. I say he is more of a car guy than the average American.

  • Plugot Plugot on Dec 05, 2009

    The American auto industry is a mature business. Like most large mature companies, they're run by suits. The inspiration and drive came from the first, and occasionally, the second generation of leadership. Those were the guys (yes, they were all guys) who had vision and purpose. The companies they created often bore their name, or at least their family's name. Eventually they die off replaced by the next generation of management which may have lingering commitment to the values of the founders. They in turn are replaced by the corporate MBAs who major in financial management and could just as easily be selling tampons as trucks. Maybe both, depending on the corporation. Their only commitment is to the fabled "bottom line" which generally translates as "the most for me, and screw everybody else". In America today the corporate managers have managed to rob the wealth of the society, invest in the cheapest labor they can find, and maximize their own personal wealth. GM's decline started decades ago. It just doesn't have decades to rebuild itself. As much as I love the idea of American cars, I really don't like too much of their actual product. It's pretty hard to be inspired by spreadsheets. That's why Apple turned around after the return of Steve Jobs. Maybe Willie Durant should come back from the grave and take over GM. It couldn't be worse.

  • Tassos ask me if I care.
  • ToolGuy • Nice vehicle, reasonable price, good writeup. I like your ALL CAPS. 🙂"my mid-trim EX tester is saddled with dummy buttons for a function that’s not there"• If you press the Dummy button, does a narcissist show up spouting grandiose comments? Lol.
  • MaintenanceCosts These are everywhere around here. I'm not sure the extra power over a CR-V hybrid is worth the fragile interior materials and the Kia dealership experience.
  • MaintenanceCosts It's such a shame about the unusable ergonomics. I kind of like the looks of this Camaro and by all accounts it's the best-driving of the current generation of ponycars. A manual 2SS would be a really fun toy if only I could see out of it enough to drive safely.
  • ToolGuy Gut feel: It won't sell all that well as a new vehicle, but will be wildly popular in the used market 12.5 years from now.(See FJ Cruiser)