11 December 2013


Story first appeared in the DetroitNews.com.

Mary Barra is blazing more than one trail on her way to becoming the next CEO of General Motors Co., effective next month.

After five years of outsiders guiding the Motor City’s automakers back from the brink of extinction, the appointment of the 51-year-old GM veteran marks the return of a native Detroiter to an industry C-suite — and signals that a humbling crisis finally is giving way to a new generation of leaders tasked with executing business fundamentals and winning.

Not that the new gig will be easy for Barra, considered an up-and-comer since her days in the 1990s as former CEO Jack Smith’s assistant. It won’t be, because the leadership change accelerated by Chairman Dan Akerson’s need to care for an ailing wife is about more than Barra or the historic fact that she will be the first woman to head a global automaker.

It’s about ensuring GM’s future continues to distance itself from the bad habits of its past. As much as the new boss will need to prove she’s got the mettle to run the whole show, GM will need to demonstrate that the next crop of leaders can work as a team to keep GM moving in a direction that impresses customers and satisfies investors at the same time.

“Team trumps talent,” Akerson said Tuesday in remarks describing the leadership change. “If you can’t run the play we call, then there isn’t a place for you. Mary is an adaptive personality, one who adapts to change well. We’ve tried to adopt a culture here of team instead of personality.”

Dan Ammann, the 41-year-old chief financial officer and relative newcomer to GM, becomes president with responsibility for the automaker’s regional businesses and its restructured financial operations. Mark Reuss, gearhead-in-chief and president of GM North America, replaces Barra as head of global product development.

GM’s leadership moves may be surprising to casual observers, particularly the promotion of Barra. But they’re largely predictable to students of the company attuned to the unofficial leadership race, the bias to elevate an insider and Akerson’s public comments, chiefly his remarks that it was “inevitable” that a “car gal” would soon head a Detroit automaker.

“It seems to me the board has really been savvy this time,” said Marina v.N. Whitman, a former chief economist for GM and now professor of business administration and public policy at the University of Michigan. “Mary Barra is clearly future-oriented.”

Meaning what? As GM’s chief product boss, she worked to discern what customers would want, not to deliver what the company thought they should have. As head of global HR, she witnessed first-hand the changing priorities in young ambition and stultifying effects of allowing mid-level problems to block paths to advancement and change.

But there’s more to succession planning accelerated because Akerson’s wife, Karin, was diagnosed this fall with late-stage cancer. The new executive lineup had been taking shape for months behind the scenes, the result being a group that seems designed to simultaneously leverage individual strengths to complement the whole.

In a bid to maintain GM’s momentum and bolster its credibility on Wall Street, the company’s directors appear to be executing the automotive equivalent of “best available athlete” for a leadership team that will pick up where the federal bailout and the “Government Motors” rap leaves off.

CEO goes to an engineering-trained veteran of 33 years with a demonstrated record of building consensus, leading a team, exhibiting empathy when needed and toughness when required. President goes to a foreign-born Wall Street hand, Ammann, whose stature and record of disciplined financial management at GM instill confidence with investors.

And global product goes to the Michigan-born, locally-reared son of a former GM president ousted in the boardroom coup that culminated in the Jack Smith era at GM. By all accounts, Mark Reuss was a contender for the top job, but his new gig is likely to prove a winner for GM’s improving product cred.

GM’s leadership shake-up may not necessarily be cause for celebration, but it nonetheless marks the end of a painful era and the beginning of a new one. The U.S. Treasury on Monday sold its final share in the automaker, and one day later came a new leadership trio disproportionately staffed with two Detroiters who thrived in the crucible of the past five years and emerged on top.

There will be critics, as there always are of whatever decision GM chooses to make. Such as: not good; Vice-Chairman Steve Girsky is stepping away from his executive role even as he’ll keep his seat on the board. Or it’s too soon for Barra; she never ran a region, like Europe or Asia-Pacific.

She’s “very good at product development,” Warren Browne, a former GM executive in Europe and now vice president of business development for AutomotiveCompass LLC, wrote in an email. But she has “no regional experience” and “no financial experience.”

The record of the past five years suggests a different lesson: Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally neither worked abroad nor served as a CFO. And yet he’s the rock star credited with leading the Blue Oval’s effort to save itself, to re-establish the credibility of American manufacturing and to do it with a team culled from the best of Detroit.

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