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In this Dec. 2, 2009 file photo, then-GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz delivers a keynote speech at the Los Angeles Auto Show. (Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)
In this Dec. 2, 2009 file photo, then-GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz delivers a keynote speech at the Los Angeles Auto Show. (Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)

Driving It Home

Former GM executive Bob Lutz dishes on his old bosses Add to ...

Bob Lutz – the former General Motors vice-chairman, Chrysler president, Ford senior vice-president, CEO of battery company Exide … the list is long and detailed – has never been short of opinions. Those of us armed with notebooks and tape recorders and video cameras love him.

His candor and outspokenness are why his latest book Icons and Idiots: Straight Talk on Leadership is worthy of attention. In particular, I was interested in his thoughts on former GM CEO Rick Wagoner. Why? Timing. GM has just rejoined the S & P 500 and the U.S. Government has said it will sell another 30 million of its 240 million-plus GM shares.

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In a nutshell, Lutz says GM’s last CEO before the 2009 bankruptcy was an incredibly nice guy and “a magnificent human being.” I got to know Rick Wagoner as a journo over more than 25 years and I would certainly agree.

“Rick trusted his direct reports and rarely micromanaged, sometimes to a fault,” Lutz writes. “He was slow to see the weakness or ineffectiveness of some senior executives who looked good, sounded good, and actually did little or were indecisive, but who had come up ’through the ranks’ with him. In short, he tolerated less-than-stellar performance.”

Thus, Wagoner rates a score of 34 out of a maximum of 50 the Lutz leadership scale. On integrity, Wagoner rates 5 out of 5. But on toughness and consistency, 2 out of 5.

“Rick Wagoner was the perfect ‘peacetime’ CEO,” Lutz writes. “His strategy was impeccable and he should have been more successful, but bad timing, bad luck and the weight of still-unexpurgated GM costs and cultural traits proved his undoing. I hated to see him go.”

But Wagoner had to go. A GM man to the bone, Wagoner was unable or unwilling to change a GM culture which even now tends to be complacent and self-satisfied and at times even unaware of its competition, in my opinion. Make no mistake, today’s post-bankruptcy GM is clearly a more focused company, one working harder than in decades to build cars and light trucks that people want to buy at a good price.

That said, GM remains a work in progress. Some of its newer products are truly excellent. The Cadillac XTS and ATS are fantastic cars. Unfortunately, they are part of a Cadillac brand that lacks the cachet of a BMW or an Audi or a Mercedes-Benz. The brand needs work. Like its rival Lincoln, Ford’s luxury brand, Cadillac does not have its own dealer network in Canada. Cadillac’s major luxury rivals sell through dedicated stores catering exclusively to premium customers.

At the same time, the typical GM dealership has an inconsistent sweep of vehicles. Take Chevrolet. The new Impala is a fantastic large sedan and should sell really well. It was engineered and designed by GM’s best people and it shows. On the other hand, Chevy also sells a completely disappointing wagon called the Orlando. It’s the product of GM’s Korean arm. The lack there of engineering and design excellence shows. The Orlando is not on a par with the best in its segment.

This bring me to GM’s current CEO, Dan Akerson. He is no Rick Wagoner. Wagoner was a finance guy with a Duke degree; Akerson is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who made his mark in the telecom field and later in investment banking. Akerson is smart, I think patriotic and certainly able, but he lacks a background in the global development and manufacturing of complex consumer goods such as passenger cars. In fact, he’s not a manufacturing guy at all.

Akerson, by all accounts, has been pushing for change in GM’s formerly sclerotic culture, but everyone understands that he’s in his mid-60s and is not going to be in the top job for very much longer. He’s started the wheels of change at GM and cars like the ATS and the Impala, the new GM large pickups and the Chevy Spark EV suggest GM is heading down the right road.

But the long-term future of GM is going to be determined not by Akerson, but the next CEO. That makes the appointment so critical. I hope GM’s board opts for a super-demanding leader whose background is in developing, manufacturing and selling the products of a global car company. In Lutz’s terms, a “wartime leader” and, with any luck, a “car” person.

Of course that CEO will need Wagoner and Akerson’s integrity, but that person should also be tough as nails, uncompromising in every way, and committed to leading GM for a decade. Think more Jack Welch, the former CEO at General Electric, than Rick Wagoner.

That said, I have to say I agree with Lutz when he writes about Wagoner’s integrity and humanity. Let me share a story.

A couple of years before the wheels really began to fly off at GM, I was attending a holiday party for media types at GM headquarters. It was good chance to interview GM’s leadership in a more relaxed setting and it was hosted by Wagoner himself. I was talking to Wagoner, taking notes and yes sipping an adult beverage, when he politely asked me to hold my question so that he could have a few words with another reporter who was wandering past.

Wagoner excused himself, approached the reporter by name, and most important of all knew that his particular scribe had recently lost someone very close. To cancer. Wagoner knew all this and expressed truly heartfelt condolences. I was stunned and touched, moved by the humanity of it all – especially at Christmas time. A CEO, like Wagoner was at the time, meets and talks with scores and scores of ink-stained wretches like me and like this other reporter. Yet Wagoner bubbled over with humanity and it was real.

When he returned to finish the interview with me, I was nearly speechless – though those who know me know I am never completely at a loss for words.

“Thanks for your patience,” said Wagoner.

That was Rick Wagoner – an excellent human being, but not necessarily the best CEO. For GM’s sake, I hope the next CEO is an excellent, hard, relentless CEO, and perhaps just a good human being.

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