Thursday, April 2, 2009

GM’s New Board – Calling Gates, Gerstner, and Grove

There’s been lots of chatter about GM’s board of directors walking the plank, and the unprecedented role of the federal government in prodding reportedly six directors to find another country club to latch onto. The news stories have been about whether the board deserves this fate – of course they do! – and whether and how the Obama Administration is stepping far beyond the line any US government should go – I’m concerned, but see this as legitimate. The problem with this debate is that the first question is just plain silly given the track record of the company, and the second question quickly gets mired in ideological posturing.

Lost in all this is the real story, or at least the story that has the potential to make the biggest difference not just at GM but at many other companies as well. Erin White at the WSJ wrote a story after talking to me about this the other day, but I think the story is even bigger than GM. The new GM board has the potential to remake corporate governance in America. Think about it – who is going to accept a board position at GM with Treasury riding shotgun? The “been there, done that” crowd of ex-CEOs who make a living on the corporate governance trough will want no part of this assignment given the scrutiny they will be under. Better to lay low in boardrooms that value business as usual. Perhaps paradoxically, the most likely candidates for the GM board are business stars who don’t want to take on “yes-man” roles, and who would only jump into the GM fray if they had a big opportunity to make a difference.

And what a difference they could make. Imagine a proven business builder like Bill Gates, accomplished executives like Larry Bossidy, Jack Welch, and Lou Gerstner, or Silicon Valley iconoclasts like Andy Grove who would simply refuse to accept the status quo. Leaders who have demonstrated the vision and creativity to remake enterprises, and industries. A new board like this will insist on being hands-on, asking the difficult questions but also helping to generate some of the answers. The buzzwords on the board will go from illogical incrementalism, a fixation on pay packages, and a “we can’t do that at GM” mindset to one driven by creativity, innovation, and breaking the rules. And as the song goes, if they can do it here (at GM), they can do it anywhere.

A pipedream? Perhaps. But also an opportunity for real leaders to step up to a mega-challenge that can not only help turn around a once-great company like GM, but set a new standard and expectation for how corporate governance can, and should, work in America.


  1. I take your point, Syd, but I think you are a little irrationally exuberant over the chances of this transforming GM's board. Jack and Larry are great change agents but they need a good core of assets with which to work. I fear that GM is a no-win scenario dominated by overwhelming and uncompetitive employee costs, aging and non-flexible factories, and an irrelevant product basket. Any one of these is a major issue -- all three are possibly insurmountable. A controlled bankruptcy still strikes me as the best option for GM.

  2. Point taken on the unwillingness of excecs to take a board position with "the Treasury riding shotgun." Such excessive scrutiny will inevitably repulse prospects.

    Your exuberance concerning a great GM turnaround might be on the optimistic side, but if the right crews takes the helm, they might achieve such success.

  3. Enjoyed your take on this - do you think there will be a movement to bring on more women on Boards as a result? The smattering of women on the boards now usually have to follow the leaders but perhaps for the future board recruiters will recognize we do have different way of seeing things. Vive la difference!

  4. Jeff: You are probably right, but I am an optimist. GM will emerge as a smaller player, but I think it will survive. Despite the cultural cobwebs that permeate the hallways, there is still (some) talent there.

  5. Big Jay: thanks for commenting, hope to hear from you again.

  6. Robyn: I think there is clearly a role for more women on boards, but that is only one criteria of importance. More critical is whether they will speak up, ask questions, and effectively challenge the CEO when needed. This is true for both males and females.