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GM's Whitacre Sticks Up for GM Corporate Culture, After All

General Motors Chairman and acting CEO Ed Whitacre was back to his folksy best in a roundtable interview with a group of reporters in Detroit yesterday.

It struck me in hearing a recording of the interview that Whitacre went out of his way several times to defend the much-maligned corporate culture at GM. That led to two thoughts:

One, that Whitacre must be getting feedback internally that all the rocks being thrown at GM "culture" - not least from GM executives -- were getting to be bad for morale.

Two, paradoxically, defending GM's corporate culture is something Whitacre can do as an outsider more effectively than ex-CEO and GM lifer Fritz Henderson. The press would have been all over Henderson if he defended GM's corporate culture. Coming from Whitacre, it sounds like he's sticking up for the troops, as opposed to defending GM's poor track record.

Public relations-wise, the interview was a strong recovery from a recent online web chat, where the lack of in-person interaction and the absence of anything new to say didn't serve Whitacre well.

Yesterday's session still didn't break a lot of new ground in terms of news, although Whitacre did get more specific than he had been about the timing for GM to repay its government loans early. According to published reports, the goal now is to have the GM loans repaid by the end of June 2010.

Where Whitacre excelled was in a seemingly straight-from-the-shoulder delivery, with a strong Texas accent, including at least one "gosh." Whitacre also allowed that the company's new mission statement had to be "simple" so he could understand it, since he's "not a car guy."

That humility probably plays well in Detroit and in the rest of the country. However, my experience from growing up in the North and living and working in the South for a lot of years is that whenever somebody prefaces their remarks with, "I'm just a simple ole country boy ..." that's when it's time to hold onto your wallet, figuratively speaking.

Here are some edited excerpts from the interview, on various topics, with apologies to my colleagues who were there. GM provided me with a recording of the session.

Whitacre's opening remark: It's been busy at General Motors, as you might guess ... Gosh, I'll answer any questions you have or I'll give it a shot. I guess you think I've been hard to get to ... I'm not hard to get to, we just have had an awful lot going on here.

Question: What are you looking for, in a new CEO? Whitacre: We're looking for somebody that can be a leader ... (Experience in) the car business would be nice but not a requirement ... I do not have any (candidates yet).

Q: Do U.S. government restrictions on pay affect the search? W: Of course. Absolutely. ... It's pretty stringent. Of course it has an impact on how you search.

Q: Does that mean GM can't hire the best person for the job? W: It's about compensation, but it's also about the desire to lead a big company and about potential out in the future, so it's about that, too ... I think somebody would have the desire to do this ... somebody would be wanting to do this for more than compensation. I think it's a bigger deal than that ... it's more than compensation.

Q: Do you intend to keep the CEO title long-term? W: I am enjoying it, I will say that. It's a terrific company ... Do I want to do that long-term? I told the board no. But I can't define that (how long), I can't even define that myself.

Q: Can you give an example of the kind of culture change you're trying to bring about? W: There's nothing wrong with the culture here. I guess that word's used a lot. As I've been out and visiting assembly plants, and Engineering and Design, we really do have some very talented, good people here. It's more a question of letting everyone know what the plan is, engaging everyone ...

Q: You must have seen something that needs to be corrected. W: That has to do with encouragement, knowing what we're trying to achieve, getting everybody engaged ... I've seen a good groundswell from everybody, and (rank-and-file employees say), "Let's get going, let's do it." I think we have some momentum here. I know we have some momentum here.

Photo: GM

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