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GM's New CFO is an Outsider (from Microsoft)

It's no stretch to say that General Motors has an insular culture and, despite making the Corvette--the company doesn't move very fast. I was talking to a CEO at one of the new electric car startups today, and he talked about creating small, autonomous units--almost like skunkworks--within his company and giving them carte blanche (with accountability for the final product, of course).

At GM, power resided at the top, and the system rewarded good soldiers who inched their way up. That's why John DeLorean was considered such a "maverick" in that culture. I read a funny piece recently in which he was offered a chance to work at Pontiac in 1956. The bright young Packard engineer was sent down to the division for an interview--with an aged party who represented ossified GM traditions. He turned the job down, only changing his mind when he received assurances he could really create new cars there. It took a while, but the result was the 1964 GTO.

GM Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre is shaking things up at GM, and promotion from within the enlisted ranks doesn't seem to be part of his plan. Today, he announced that Chris Liddell had been hired as GM vice chairman and CFO, replacing 20-year GM veteran Ray G. Young, who is being sent to China. Liddell will report directly to Whitacre, who praised his "depth and experience."

Who's Chris Liddell? Not a car guy in the Bob Lutz mold, certainly. He's got no automotive experience at all, but he probably knows a bit about computers: Liddell comes to GM from Microsoft, where he spent five as CFO.

The New Zealander held posts over there until joining International Paper as CFO, then going to Microsoft in 2005. Now he's in charge of an international conglomerate that does business in 140 countries and has (still) 209,000 employees. And did I mention that it has major financial challenges?

According to Engadget, Liddell could be being groomed for service as a future CEO, once he gathers auto experience. That would certainly shake up the car guys. But GM needs two kinds of leaders now: One to reinvigorate the product line, and the other to staunch the flow of red ink. Liddell could be that guy.

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