For A GM Revival, Maybe Ignorance Really Is Bliss

(AP)
The wiseacres had a field day after word circulated about a Bloomberg News interview in which General Motors' new chairman, Ed Whitacre acknowledged knowing nothing about the auto industry.

In our 24/7 "gotcha" media culture, Whitacre had to know what was coming. That kind of sound bite is the equivalent of killer catnip for the blogosphere and too much to resist.

Of course, GM has been so bad for so long that it's hard to get excited over Whitacre's confessed ignorance. At the very least, it might even put the new chairman on a par with previous GM top management. Seriously, is there anything so mysterious about the role he's assuming that would prevent an accomplished manager like Whitacre from successfully transferring skills picked up from an industry other than automobiles?

After all, we're talking about a lifer from the telecom industry who retired in 2007 as CEO of AT&T. It's clear from his resume that the guy understands business and technology far better than most. What's more, his appointment at GM shouldn't be that surprising when you consider that Ford plucked its current CEO, Alan Mulally from Boeing, where he had served as an executive vice president. (I wouldn't make too much of it, but Ford does remain the only member of the Big Three automakers which has not yet asked Uncle Sam for a bailout.)

To be sure, the history of outsiders parachuting in from different industries doesn't follow a straight narrative. Robert Nardelli was a star at General Electric who got ousted as CEO of Home Depot. (And yes, that's the same Robert Nardelli who was brought in to fix Chrysler, which filed for Chapter 11 under his watch. He stepped down this week as part of the Fiat deal.) "Chainsaw" Al Dunlap made his reputation as a corporate downsizer extraordinaire who enjoyed success at Scott Paper and Crown Zellerbach but flamed out at Sunbeam and was named by Portfolio as one of the worst American CEOs of all time.

Then there's Lou Gerstner, who carved out a special place in the firmament by saving IBM.

No exaggeration. He literally saved IBM.

An outsider to the technology business, Gerstner offered a distinguished record of accomplishment with previous stints at RJR Nabisco, American Express, and McKinsey & Co. Being a tech guru wasn't a title he held – or even aspired to.

But Gerstner understood how businesses should run. He listened to customers and he was a great manager who collected smart people around him. Upon taking over, Gerstner ripped up his predecessor's goofy plan to break the company into several "mini-IBMs" and enforced expense control upon a company that had become bloated. He subsequently refocused Big Blue's strategy, engineering its incredibly successful push into services while phasing out investments that were draining the company coffers

Unfortunately for General Motors, those sorts of superstars are few and far between. Maybe they'll keep on Fritz Henderson, who replaced Rick Wagoner as CEO earlier this year. But if GM does intend to bring in a new face, turning to an outsider may be just the ticket.

Is there a single best candidate out there? Probably not. The recruiting firms all have lists of super-talented managers who might take the call. If GM ever does decide to change CEOs, it could do a lot worse than pluck someone from the ranks of Silicon Valley, where free wheeling experimentation is as ingrained as the play-it-safe mindset that's decimated the domestic auto industry.

Who knows? Maybe, as Tom Friedman once suggested, they can invite Steve Jobs in for a year of national service G.M. "iCar," anyone?
  • Charles Cooper On Twitter»

    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.

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