GM Has Good-Cop, Bad-Cop Personalities

Last Updated Jul 13, 2009 2:57 PM EDT

It was fascinating to hear General Motors President and CEO Fritz Henderson knock GM's corporate culture the other day.

Keep in mind Henderson is a GM lifer who presumably has had more input than the average Joe on making GM's corporate culture what it is today.

"Most people would say our culture has been an impediment and I would agree with that. And that needs to change," Henderson said in a July 10 press conference, in which he announced GM will shed one-third of its executives.

But which GM corporate culture would that be? Just as GM has "bad" assets, which it is dumping on "Old GM," and "good" assets, which it's keeping, GM has at least two corporate cultures inhabiting the same body.

"Good GM" corporate culture has known for decades what it needed to do to survive long-term. That is, shut enough plants to bring production in line with sales; improve quality; build more distinctive and attractive cars on the outside; share as much as possible in parts and development costs, to save costs on the inside.

"Bad GM" corporate culture was known for the "GM nod." That's where everybody goes along to get along, and nobody speaks up. GM product development boss Bob Lutz, who joined GM as an outsider from Chrysler, is a critic of the GM nod.

The GM nod, according to Lutz, was responsible for the butt-ugly Pontiac Aztek, for instance. Lutz insists the Aztek couldn't have made it to market on his watch. Incidentally, I once flew into a Florida airport that had a whole lot full of yellow Aztek rent-a-cars, which were quite a sight from the air.

That's the bad GM culture. Lutz also told me in an interview that GM's semi-independent global operations were way too independent, making it impossible to take maximum advantage of economies of scale.

Yet Henderson made his straight-talking, cost-cutting reputation in far-flung global operations like Brazil. He was an operations guy before he was CFO, which was before Henderson was suddenly elevated this year to CEO. In the provinces, so to speak, he learned where GM's global operations were inter-connected, and where they should have been, but weren't.

Henderson knows, even if he glossed over it in favor of a good sound bite the other day, that there's a "Good GM" corporate culture that's worth saving.