June 22, 2011
GM’s Quandary: What to do about Mr. Akerson?
By Peter M. De Lorenzo
(Posted 6/21, 7:00 p.m.) Detroit. It’s no secret that I don’t think much of Dan Akerson, the board-appointed CEO from GM who hails from the quick-draw, quick-study, knee-jerk, reactionary school of business management, but then again he’s ultimately not my problem. He is, however, becoming a growing concern among the so-called “intelligentsia” and True Believers alike toiling away inside the Silver Silos hard by the Detroit River and at GM’s vast Technical Center complex in Warren, Michigan.
Akerson, the ex-U.S. Naval officer who earned his corporate chops (to a middling degree) in the telecom business and then when that didn’t really work out so swimmingly ended up in private equity while waiting for his network of cronies to help him score his next gig, has now been recast – by his estimation and his alone, I might add – as a glowing visionary auto industry savior ensconced in the top seat at General Motors.
That Akerson is almost completely devoid of qualifications to be in this job has become a nonissue at this point. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly in this column the GM board of directors will go down as the most incompetent, self-serving band of corporate bumblers in American history, and the fact that they plucked Akerson from abject obscurity and handed this guy the keys to the car is consistent with every other boneheaded and woefully misguided decision that this august (cough, hack) corporate governance body has made in the last 25 years. (The only truly eerie thing about all of this is that even when the names change on the GM board the malicious level of mediocrity stays horrifyingly consistent, as if there’s a secret pact involved that demands serial incompetence as part of the gig. But I digress.)
Understanding all of that, the real issue facing GM – at least for the upper-level executives working there who actually do have a deep level of concern for the future health of the company – is that Dan Akerson (along with at least some of his acolytes) clearly has no idea that the comments he made in an interview with The Detroit News two weeks ago were utterly devastating, for him personally, for the company, and in the bigger scheme of things for the Detroit-based automobile companies as a whole.
I now refer to that interview as “The Thud Heard ‘Round the World” and I consider it to be one of the single most damning interviews in the history of this business. (See it here, -Ed.)
Displaying a remarkable level of insensitivity and a lack of understanding about the nuances of this business, about the people who have worked tirelessly on behalf of GM (and who are still bringing it every day), about the realities of GM’s place in the automotive world, and about how he can’t rewrite automotive history but he can most certainly add voluminous negative chapters to it, “The Thud” displayed Mr. Akerson in high dudgeon, which means it painted a portrait in living color of a belligerent, ball-busting, tone-deaf “leader” who is anything but that.
In one fell swoop Akerson turned-off GM’s entire product development community, alarmed Wall Street investment-types with his seemingly reactionary “quick-study” assessments of this business, pissed on his competition in a remarkably uninformed and juvenile manner, referred to Communist China’s “cultural revolution” in the 60s as something that the GM culture needed to emulate after he’s gone, and demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of what real leadership means. As in, he doesn’t even have a shred of a clue as to what it means.
All this in a riveting two-and-one-half hours.
As I said, this interview was a train wreck of devastating, almost incalculable proportion, a complete and total disaster that will forever peg Akerson as a not-ready-for-prime-time corporate interloper who has no business being called a CEO, and certainly no business running one of America’s largest companies.
But GM’s quandary is this: What can possibly be done about Akerson?
Selim Bingol, the GM PR Chief brought in by Ed Whitacre and who was left high and dry when “Big Ed” took his leave (or was forced to leave, depending on which story you want to believe), clearly has no control over Akerson. And from what I’m hearing from deeply-placed moles within the Silver Silos, Bingol can’t even get through to Akerson that the interview was a disaster. Not that that’s a total surprise, after all, non-“leaders” either don’t listen, or they only listen to the dulcet tones of their own thought balloons, which clearly describes Akerson to a “T.” So the net-net of this discussion is that Bingol has either been wildly ineffective in at least getting Akerson to drop his bull-in-the-china-shop routine at least for a nanosecond, or he’s so close to all of it that he’s completely lost his compass in the Fog of War.
Not that Bingol should possibly be responsible for trying to rein-in Akerson all by his lonesome because that, by all appearances, seems to be a damn near impossible task, but if not Bingol alone, then who is going to help him?
Akerson’s coterie of loyalists? Hardly. They are blinded or rendered silent by the realities of their individual positions and the salaries those positions bring, and of course the personal financial implications and obligations associated with those salaries. So that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
What about the GM board? I already covered that.
Thus you can see GM’s Quandary. If for all intents and purposes Selim Bingol has been co-opted by Akerson simply by the nature of the circumstances, and the GM board is powerless to do anything rational unless proven otherwise, then right now General Motors is being “led” by a morale-crushing despot who listens to no one, isn’t burdened with enough quality experience in the business to know any better, and who is, depressingly enough, about to ride herd over GM’s next wave of new products scheduled to hit the market in the 2014-2017 time period, which is such a frightening thought that it’s almost too horrific to consider.
If Dan Akerson truly is “…the wrong guy, at the wrong time, at the wrong car company…“as I said emphatically a couple of weeks ago (Read it here, - Ed.), what are GM’s options exactly?
Short of a board member growing a set and marshaling other board members to rise up and summarily dismiss him, there aren’t many.
But this I’m absolutely certain of: If Dan Akerson isn’t reined-in and he continues to be allowed to open his mouth at the most inopportune times imaginable, demonstrating to all who would bother to pay attention his lack of feel, knowledge and understanding for what this business is really all about while showcasing his fundamentally flawed idea of what leadership means, then GM is headed for a world of hurt.
And yes, this is when you Wall Street types should start paying closer attention, because as wildly incredible as it may seem I’m suggesting that there now needs to be, make that has to be yet another regime change at GM, preferably within the next twelve months, even though that would make the fifth GM CEO in just a little more than three years.
Why? Because the potential damage that could be wrought by No. 4 is just too great to contemplate and too much of a risk to GM’s future.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
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