By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Since the most recent public whipping of GM and CEO Mary Barra at the hands of certain U.S. Senators is complete - for now – the most striking thing to come out of the hearings last week was the fact that general counsel Michael Millikin has been completely exposed, to everyone but Ms. Barra, apparently.
When I first broached the subject of Millikin back in early June, few people knew of him outside this business. In fact, some of my critics suggested that I was wasting my time pummeling GM’s top lawyer, that Millikin was inconsequential and “just doing his job.”
I smiled to myself at the complete and utter naiveté of that statement and pressed on, because by no stretch of the imagination has Michael Millikin just done his job. The quintessential classic corporate operator - if Millikin kept a copy of Il Principe by his nightstand, I would not be surprised – Millikin has made a career out of attaching himself to the power of the moment in the company, and then proceeded to make himself appear to be integral and essential to the “proper” running of all things.
The guy has proved to be absolutely a genius at it, too, sizing up and then sidling up to the latest purveyors of power at the corporation and with his knowledge and command of all things, in his mind anyway, proving himself to be indispensable. Some CEOs and other métiers of power in the GM corporate super structure have been able to keep Millikin’s overtures in perspective. And others, like Ms. Barra, have not.
Then, of course, there’s the loathsome Dan Akerson, who in Millikin found a kindred spirit and a like-minded, maliciously poisoned soul, and the resulting mayhem let loose in the corporation was, by all accounts, unseemly and despicable. I’ve tried to paint a picture in past columns of what went on with those two having a death grip on the reins of power, but I can only approximate the divisiveness and paranoia unleashed by that mayhem, because the accounts related to me by people who were actually there, toiling away in the upper management trenches, have been blood curdling. As one former insider put it to me recently, “You’ve only scratched the surface.”
I can only imagine. Two deviously ruthless executives who knew what was right for everybody running amuck in that corporation? Is it any wonder then that Millikin considered his stint with Akerson the most enjoyable time of his career? Saying the two were made for each other is an understatement for this or any other year. With Akerson’s perverse sense of self as a supreme being lording over all he surveys, who viewed GM and its “little people” and the entire auto industry as pathetic wastes of time, mere speed bumps on his way to corporate immortality, combined with Millikin’s equally perverse sense of self worth as The Ultimate Insider egged-on by someone who finally “got” him, I couldn’t imagine a more mind-numbingly disastrous scenario.
Getting back to Ms. Barra then, why is it, you might wonder, that she succumbed to Millikin’s oily overtures? Obviously bright and more than capable, why has she allowed herself to have been seduced and misled by a corporate piranha of Millikin’s ilk?
When you really look at Ms. Barra’s career trajectory it’s not surprising to me in the least that she has allowed Millikin to weasel himself into the inner sanctum of power and proved himself to be “indispensable.” After all, Akerson did the “hand-off” of Millikin to Barra insisting that in Millikin she had someone she could trust implicitly, which she went along with because, well, Akerson did promote her to be CEO. And from that moment on she was no match for the manipulative skills that Millikin brings to bear.
This is a man who has made a career out of exploiting executives’ weaknesses – except in the case of Akerson of course, that was just a nasty corporate bromance of maniacal happenstance – and he wore his “wise corporate counsel” cloak like a Cardinal roaming the halls of the Vatican, dispensing his vast wisdom and experience with glee.
And frankly, Ms. Barra never had a chance.
Long shielded and nurtured in the labyrinthine halls of engineering while going from one project to the next – her eighteen-month stint as head of Global HR didn’t count for much of anything, you can look it up - Ms. Barra was ill equipped for the diabolical machinations that Millikin has at his disposal.
Plucked almost out of obscurity to run one of the biggest corporations in the world, Barra was a mouth-watering target for Millikin, a Little Red Riding Hood lost in the dark corporate forest, as Millikin, reveling in his role as Big Bad Wolf, sheltered and protected her, counseling her as to what was important, who to trust and how to get things done. Barra allowed herself to be misled into thinking that Millikin had only her – and GM’s – best interests in mind, when in fact she was just the next prey that Millikin could play with, until he retired.
And then the recall shit hit the fan. And unfortunately, Ms. Barra’s brainwashing at the hands of one of the most manipulative corporate operators this town has ever seen was revealed for all to see at the Senate hearings last week.
"I respectfully disagree," Barra responded to Claire McCaskill's, D-MO., terse assessment that Millikin should have been exited from the company along with the others after the horrific details of the faulty ignition switch situation came to light. And for the first time, Ms. Barra pushed back at the inquisition, insisting that Millikin is "a man of incredibly high integrity. He's the person I need on this team."
There it was. Michael Millikin’s finest piece of work. The Akerson interlude was just the belligerent jocularity of two like-minded pricks sharing a sick simpatico. This, this was Millikin’s crowning achievement, a GM CEO praising the self-acknowledged corporate Prince before the entire world as a man of incredibly high integrity.
Wasn’t this the same guy who was the architect of GM’s feared legal department, an “Adjustment Bureau” of sorts that runs roughshod over anything and everything inside that corporation, whether it comes under the purview of the legal department or not? Yes, that’s the same guy.
Wasn’t this the same guy who insisted to Ms. Barra that he didn’t have a clue as to what was going on when in fact “not knowing” is as far away from Millikin’s modus operandi as you can possibly get? A guy who takes great pride in knowing everything there is to know about the company, often putting his nose – and the boots of his legal stormtroopers – in places that they don’t belong, to the detriment of many? Yes, that’s the same guy.
Wasn’t this the same guy who threw two of his longtime lieutenants under the bus to be fired, in order to first cover his ass and then to convince Ms. Barra that he had a handle on things and that it was bad, and he felt so sad about it but that they had to go? Yup, that’s him.
Ms. Barra’s handling of this ignition interlock fiasco has been commendable. It is an extremely difficult situation and she has done an excellent job so far, to a point. But her blind devotion and misplaced sense of loyalty to Michael Millikin is a glaring misstep and monumental failure in judgment.
The fact that Michael Millikin is still roaming the halls of the Silver Silos is an insult to everyone at GM who so fervently wants to get this mess straightened out and to move the company forward.
It has impinged on Ms. Barra’s integrity.
It has cost her in the eyes of many who want to see her do well.
And if she’s not careful, it might just cost her the CEO job down the road.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.