June 27, 2014 at 11:35 am

Daniel Howes

Matt Lauer's 'mom' questions cheapen Mary Barra's rise to top of GM

In an exclusive interview with TODAY's Matt Lauer, the General Motors CEO says she is confident that the company has disciplined all necessary employees associated with the recall crisis. (today.com)

General Motors Co. recalls 20 million cars worldwide in less than six months, is preparing to unveil Monday a multibillion-dollar compensation program for accident victims and is fighting to retain credibility with customers.

And NBC’s Matt Lauer uses Thursday’s national broadcast of the Today Show to ask whether CEO Mary Barra can do her job and be a mom at the same time? It’d be infuriating, this condescending sexism, if it weren’t so hilariously beside the point.

GM is facing its largest crisis since its historic bankruptcy, an ignition switch debacle implicated in at least 13 deaths and dozens of accidents. It has spawned a flood of lawsuits, two rounds of congressional hearings, investigations by the Justice Department and SEC, and so far has cost GM an estimated $2 billion — not including the victims’ fund that Kenneth Feinberg is set to detail next week.

What and how GM’s CEO is leading the company through this supreme test of competence and accountability is far more important to GM and its customers, its employees and its shareholders, accident victims and their families, than whether the boss wears a skirt to the office after she gets the kids off to school.

Who cares? The only things that matter about the GM CEO and her management team is whether they can deliver on the promise of doing “the right thing” by the automaker’s customers and be accountable in deed for a decade’s worth of incompetence and neglect.

These are serious times for Detroit’s No. 1 automaker and its new CEO. Lauer’s lazy detour into lefty identity politics, so evident in his “mom-as-CEO” line of questioning, cheapens Barra’s ascension to the top because it implies that she’s either a) unworthy or b) a token or c) a willing dupe.

Hardly a victory for gender equality, that. Nor does it recognize what it means for anyone, man or woman, to reach the pinnacle of the global auto industry, to become CEO of an industrial multinational whose products are sold on every continent. I’ll help: It’s huge.

Reaction in the blogosphere to Lauer? Predictable outrage: “How’s this for a question,” Time Magazine’s Charlotte Alter asked. “Can Matt Lauer be a good dad and host the Today show? Let’s discuss.” Think Progress called it “super sexist,” and Jalopnik termed it “completely irrelevant.”

All of which is true. Look, anyone who knows anything about GM and its leadership jockeying — a group that manifestly fails to include Lauer or his Today producers — knows Barra was for a year or more heading a very short list to succeed Dan Akerson as CEO.

And anyone who knows anything about GM and Barra’s trajectory through its executive ranks knows she’s been what the automaker calls a “high pot,” as in high potential, for the better part of two decades. She worked as a staffer in the C-suite, ran manufacturing engineering, headed global HR for a short time, and was tapped by Akerson to run global product development for the three years before her move to the top.

Lauer’s defense, posted on his Facebook page later in the day, doesn’t help much. He cites Barra lamenting to Forbes that she missed her son’s junior prom as justification for asking a question unlikely to be posed to Ford Motor Co.’s Alan Mulally, Fiat Chrysler’s Sergio Marchionne or Barra’s predecessor, a proud grandfather.

“It’s an issue almost any parent including myself can relate to,” Lauer wrote. “If a man had publicly said something similar after accepting a high-level job, I would have asked him exactly the same thing.”

Right. Except that he also asked this:

After acknowledging that Barra is “hugely qualified,” Lauer in his interview cited speculation “that you also got this job because as a woman and as a mom because people within General Motors knew this company was in for a very tough time, and as a woman and a mom you could present a softer image and softer face for this company as it goes through this horrible episode.”

Yes, some people are speculating exactly that. But given the contents of the 315-page Valukas investigation, additional reporting, testimony in three separate congressional hearings and parallel investigations on Capitol Hill, that speculation doesn’t hold up any more than Lauer’s line of questioning.

Besides, it assumes a level of competence and knowledge that GM’s leadership does not appear to have possessed in the run-up to the ignition-switch mess going public. The Byzantine structure linking its safety and legal staffs together in the service of recalls, now restructured, was designed to deflect responsibility and hide all but the most egregious (and expensive) messes from the top of the house.

Akerson, or Ed Whitacre before him or Fritz Henderson before him would have needed to know of the ticking time bomb before they could promote GM’s highest ranking woman still higher and then toss the explosive mess into her lap.

Not likely. Much more likely is the “Occam’s razor” explanation, namely that the most obvious answer is the correct one: a small group of mid-level engineers failed to understand the faulty ignition switch would de-power air bags, increasing the likelihood of serious injury or death in accidents.

And, second, staff lawyers settling cases tied to dodgy ignition switches in Chevrolet Cobalts and similar models failed to alert senior executives to an emerging pattern or the building evidence and expert testimony that has proven so damaging to GM’s credibility.

It’s a mess. Cleaning it up will require the continuing attention of Barra and her team, all of whom have better ways to spend their time than answering questions not worth asking.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.