August 16, 2012 at 3:12 pm

Daniel Howes

Akerson's ride at the top turns bumpy

CEO's candor may be positive and negative for fixing GM's woes

General Motors Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dan Akerson (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Back when Ed Whitacre was running General Motors Co., a former executive quipped disapprovingly to me: "A hundred ways to run a company, and he picked one."

Can't help but think the same thing about Big Ed's successor, Dan Akerson. He increasingly looks like a CEO working to keep his global team together and focused amid chronic difficulties in Europe, a flatlining share price in the United States and a flurry of transatlantic executive turmoil GM hasn't seen since President Obama's auto task force effectively euthanized an entire cadre of GM leadership.

Worse, Akerson's scolding of malcontents and the leaked verbatim account of global marketing boss Joel Ewanick's recent ouster, courtesy of The Detroit News and Bloomberg News, respectively, suggest the Navy man leading the General has a few restive folks in the ranks or selective leakers doing damage control or both.

That ain't good, necessarily.

But Akerson's right that employees of GM should not be posting online pictures showing the interior of the automaker's new pickup, a firing offense in this town if ever there is one. He's right that GM's lackluster unit in Germany, Adam Opel AG, needs some fresh energy at the helm of a company that has lost $16 billion over the past 12 years.

He's right that GM, still partly owned by American taxpayers and unlikely in the near-term to make them whole on their investment, will be judged by its performance. He's right, too, that GM needs a more deeply systemic transformation of a culture that made too many excuses for too long.

And he's well within his rights to say it all, plainly, to employees, even if sensitive souls in the media and the industry can't stomach the chairman of General Motors committing the sin of candor. At least ol' Dan (like Maximum Bob Lutz before him) says what he thinks, which is more than you get from most CEOs around here, on or off the record.

What's not at all clear is whether Akerson's plainspoken style and bias for negative reinforcement are the most effective way to drive the change GM needs. Are apparent churn, backbiting and awards with silly names the best way to rally the troops behind extending GM's post-bankruptcy momentum and to compete effectively with Ford Motor Co., Volkswagen AG and Toyota Motor Corp. for customers, market share and executive talent?

Detroit may be a tough town, but it's not the Navy. Nor is it home to the hardened business culture of Germany, the hierarchy of corporate Japan or the interchangeable cogs of Wall Street, familiar turf to the CEO, vice chairman and CFO running the automaker.

They'll hate to hear this at GM's RenCen headquarters, but the arc of Ford's transformation under CEO Alan Mulally suggests that positively leading the people you have with publicly innocuous language can prove more productive than criticism and replacing one disappointment with the next body in line.

The rules are changing. Any employee with a smartphone and a beef with the company can record a town hall or shoot video of a proprietary interior and make it public before the boss starts his next meeting. Meaning, first, the brass needs to choose its words carefully and, second, how its actions are perceived will influence how people inside and out behave.

A little perspective is needed here, folks. As much as GM's management, board of directors and the auto task force jerked around Opel and its workforce in the dark days of 2008 and '09, the fact remains that Opel has lost a staggering amount of money over the past dozen years and cleaning house there is not only justified, it's overdue.

With an assist from the American taxpayers and a product lineup assembled by their predecessors, GM's management has delivered 10 consecutive profitable quarters, the first in a decade; is overhauling 70 percent of its product line; and is poised to launch an all-new pickup truck next year, typically a license to print money.

None of that absolves Akerson from the manifold challenges bearing down on him and his management team or the consequences of his public comments, whatever they are. Nor does it guarantee a sustainable solution to GM's intractable European mess, centered in Opel's headquarters in Germany.

But the responsibility of any leader is to create an environment where stability is maintained, results matter and real candor survives. Without all three, solutions to serious problems will prove difficult to deliver and someone will have to pay the price.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

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