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12/2/2009
10:42 AM
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An Eyewitness To Ousted CEO's Impact At GM

We were in a meeting yesterday at General Motor's headquarters with Kirk Gutmann, chief technology and strategy officer, when a woman walked in and handed Gutmann a note. I could see type highlighted in bright yellow. She said, "You need to be in a 4 p.m. board meeting that just got called." I saw a flash of concern pass over Gutmann's face. We shook hands, and our meeting was quickly adjourned. Less than an hour later, I learned CEO Fritz Henderson had resigned.

We were in a meeting yesterday at General Motor's headquarters with Kirk Gutmann, chief technology and strategy officer, when a woman walked in and handed Gutmann a note. I could see type highlighted in bright yellow. She said, "You need to be in a 4 p.m. board meeting that just got called." I saw a flash of concern pass over Gutmann's face. We shook hands, and our meeting was quickly adjourned. Less than an hour later, I learned CEO Fritz Henderson had resigned.Ironically, two colleagues and I had just spent the day talking to Gutmann, new CIO Terry Kline, and two of his direct reports about some very interesting new IT initiatives at GM, and Henderson was credited several times for fostering a new culture that's helping to support these initiatives. GM calls this new culture CARS, for Customers, Accountability, Risk Taking, and Speed (and while the acronym is a bit corny, it's easy for GM's 200,000-plus employees to remember).

Since last night, the general press has been spinning out some solid analytical pieces on why Henderson left, with the consensus that this was actually a firing and that Henderson and President Obama's appointed chairman of the board, Ed Whitacre (and now interim CEO), had clashed on some issues. I read one report speculating that Whitacre does not believe Henderson worked to change the culture fast enough. My takeaway, after a day of meetings at GM, is that the company's top IT execs wouldn't necessarily agree with that. We repeatedly heard about how fast things are moving, and how quickly employees and managers have to adjust.

Let's take the goal of improved accountability (the "A" in CARS). That's requiring GM to dump its stodgy hierarchical approach to decision making, in which too many decisions land on top executives desks and hinder the company's ability to innovate and move with speed (the "S" in CARS). GM has to work through some tensions and anxieties as more midlevel managers and even non-managers (and their bosses) get comfortable making more decisions.

CIO Terry Kline, who replaced retired CIO Ralph Szygenda last month, doesn't seem to have any anxiety about this in his job, though. He said it's more reflective of his own managerial style than any legacy management styles at GM. "We want everyone to feel like an entrepreneur, and have the power to get the job done and be successful, and allow their ideas to bubble up," Kline said in our meeting. "We want a highly collaborative environment, and less hierarchy."

For Kline, that means the freedom to call a meeting with IT staffers three levels down in the organization to talk about a new project, without him having to tell their boss, or their boss's boss, that he's having the meeting. The organization is getting adjusted to Kline's approach, he said, "and the people I work for understand that's how I work."

GM's new attitude about smart mobile phones, such as the iPhone and BlackBerrys, is one example of this new culture at work. Repeatedly we heard that GM sees huge potential in better leveraging the power of mobile phones. That includes new iPhone apps for selling cars and engaging young car drivers (I'll write more on that later), and for getting more mobile phones in the hands of employees.

Many businesses have come to view smart mobile phones as an indispensable communication and collaboration tool for employees. But get this--until recently, only top-level GM executives were provided with company-supported BlackBerrys. That's the old GM. Now GM has begun allow mid-level executives to decide who in their groups gets mobile phones.

There's a lot more interesting stuff going on at GM that the IT organization is involved in, in the areas of customer-relationship management, business analytics, employee collaboration, customer retention, employee feedback, quality improvement, global manufacturing, and simply just getting better at building the cars consumers want to buy. In our meetings at GM, we saw energy, optimism, and lots of smaller, intense meetings happening around us.

Henderson is out, and we don't exactly why. But I'll tell you this: Henderson helped kick start something at GM, at least in the IT department. Hopefully, even with this latest upheaval, GM can stay on the course to CARS.

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