GM Shakes Up Management Like It's 2009

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
gm shakes up management like it s 2009

For a company that’s crowing about its sales growth and profitability, General Motors has been doing the kind of executive shuffling we became accustomed to seeing in the bad old days before the bailout. Already this week, freshly-minted Global Marketing boss Joel Ewanick put his former Hyundai colleague Chris Perry in charge of Chevy’s US marketing, and transferred Buick marketing duties from John Schwegman to former Volt marketer Tony DiSalle. The head of Onstar, Chris Preuss, has also stepped down this week, leaving former Sprint Nextel and Verizon executive Linda Marshall in charge. And today came the big one: 49 Year-Old Mary Barra has replaced Tom Stephens at the top of GM’s new-product development team as Stephens ascends to the new position of Chief Technology Officer.

These changes come straight from the top, as CEO Dan Akerson created the chief global marketing officer and chief global technology officer positions, requiring other executives like Barra and Perry to move up in the company. But will “global” czars actually catch GM up on new product development, one of its major deficits vis-a-vis the competition? More importantly, will Barra simply become the latest GM lifer to bump up against the Peter Principle? The fact that she’s leaving Human Resources to take on The General’s most important task certainly has the scent of Old GM’s corporate politics on it…

In fairness, it should be noted that Barra’s experience at GM is not limited to HR work. As GM’s presser puts it

Recognized for bringing diverse groups together for a common purpose, Barra was appointed vice president, Global Human Resources in 2009, to initiate change in the company’s culture during the largest restructuring in GM’s history. Prior to this appointment, she had been vice president, Global Manufacturing Engineering. Barra has also held a number of engineering and staff positions, including plant manager, Detroit Hamtramck Assembly Plant; executive director of Competitive Operations Engineering; and general director of Internal Communications for GM North America.

Or, as CEO Dan Akerson put it

Her broad experience in engineering, manufacturing and staff functions, combined with the ability to collaborate and build strong relationships will enhance the company’s ability to deliver the products today’s consumers demand.

Besides, it’s not as if the weight of new-product decisions will be on Barra’s shoulders alone, as Bloomberg reports

The new product development chief’s job will be to work closely with Stephens and global Chief Marketing Officer Joel Ewanick to get a consumer voice in GM’s future models and decide which technologies should be used in those cars, Barra, 49, said in a telephone interview. The three will work as a team to develop GM’s product strategy, she said.

Since GM has admitted that it is a year behind the competition in its new product development, these three executives are going to have to work well together. And because Barra is relatively inexperienced, analyst reaction has been decidedly mixed. Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics sees the upside as

Managing GM is about getting rid of fiefdoms. Cross-breeding executives could be a way of nuking the fiefdoms.

Meanwhile, Maryann Keller of Maryann Keller Associates worries

The appointment is strange. Why does GM have anything that people are excited about? Because of Bob Lutz. I’m not sure that [Barra] has the background for this job.

We’ll certainly be watching with interest.

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2 of 25 comments
  • Motorhead10 Motorhead10 on Jan 21, 2011

    Chris Preuss leaving is interesting, too. I believe they ultimately sell/spin/cash out of OnStar anyway as it tries to create an aftermarket presence. Saw Preuss at the AutoNews World Congress - he was probably the most impressive speaker in terms of understanding his business

  • GarbageMotorsCo. GarbageMotorsCo. on Jan 21, 2011

    "Iceberg, right ahead!!!" "Everybody, rearrange those chairs on the deck!!!"

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