Sunday, November 14, 2010

Changing the Culture at GM

I'm still chewing on Steve Rattner's book about the auto bailout and in particular, his encounter with the the seemingly immovable cluelessness of old GM.  From Rattner's perspective, they just didn't get it: after a generation as lords of the universe and another of declining market share, they still saw themselves as lords of the universe--they just couldn't get their mind round the idea that some of their problems might be of their own making.

All this comes into focus for Rattner in the matter of of picking the right CEO for  new GM.  The story eminds me a bit of Lincoln's problem in finding a general to run the Civil War--just as Lincoln rolled the dice with McClellan and Halleck and Meade before he finally found Grant, so GM went through two insiders in a year, then an outsider who didn't work out so well either, before they settled on the current incumbent.  Is the new guy Grant?  Necessarily, the returns are not yet in.

But there is the larger problem of turning the battleship, moving the iceberg, herding the cats, herding the turkeys, whatever is the right metaphor as one tries to describe the process of instituting change at this vast empire, stilll running on the inertial force of generations.  You've got to get senior staff from somewhere, and in the nature of things, the talent pool is bound to include some of the old culprits.  Rattner makes no particular point of it, but the reader is impressed to learn that one of his least favorite people at old GM--the CFO--lands on his feet running after it is all over, running GM Asia.  Maybe it's just horses for courses, getting him into the right job, but it is a somewhat alarming climax for Rattner's story.

I wonder if, in the end, the problem of corporation-building isn't a lot like the problem  of nation-building: you can disband Saddam's army but you'll have chaos if you do, and one way or another, you''ll probably find yourself creeping back to them again because the alternatives are even worse.

No comments: