Wolff: GM’s Barra shames voiceless CEOs – USA TODAY
The CEO is an equivocal figure in American life. On the one hand, the job is among the most highly paid and most central social and economic leadership roles in the nation—the bigger the company you run, the more power and influence you have. On the other hand, almost all CEOs prefer to keep their heads down, to be inside players, to protect themselves. To be public is to be exposed.
It was puzzling, then, if not downright ill advised, for GM’s CEO, Mary Barra to last week personally lay claim to the biggest crisis at her company since the financial crisis.
“She’s owning it,” The New York Times quoted a prominent public relations executive saying. “She will not be able to distance herself from it. It’s now hers,” said the P.R. man, Daniel G. Hill, in what sounded a bit like a threat.
“It” is the recall of 1.6 million GM cars with faulty ignition switches responsible for the deaths of 12 people—a mechanical flaw that GM knew about for a decade before issuing the massive recall.
Her “owning it” strategy, the Times said, will be “severely tested” as the government presses the company for accountability and as civil law suits unfold. Congress, regulators and the Justice Department are lining up.
The obvious point is that Barra could have personally sidestepped this. She’s only been the CEO for two months—it didn’t happen on her watch. And, anyway, CEOs assign responsibility, they don’t assume it.
Indeed, her response seemed so out of the usual playbook that it might reasonably seem like she had something else up her sleeve. She wasn’t just apologizing and accepting accountability, she was announcing herself.
Then again, she’s a woman. Arguably, she is part of a new fashion of women running major companies who are, suspiciously, media-willing and comfortable. Yahoo now exists as much as an expression of its CEO, Marissa Mayer, as it does as an expression of forward thinking technology—in a sense, she’s single-handedly keeping it relevant. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s front man executive, has built a cottage industry for herself as a public person, while the men in the company huddle in secret.
But these are tech companies, so outside the usual.
Barra is running a car company. General Motors. That symbol of deeply entrenched and conservative American corporate and economic life. If GM’s CEO is not acting like a CEO is supposed to act, then what?
Barra was not just positioning the company to weather a bad PR situation. She was going from facelessness to full-frontal presence, from the highly controlled environments favored, almost fetishistically, by most CEOs, to an unprotected public role.
Once you go public like this, it’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube. You’re out there now, transparently, or you’re in retreat. Once a CEO has spoken, has shown him or herself capable of public utterance, nobody really wants to hear from anyone else.
Much of the commentary about Barra’s singular owning up identified her with 1980s Chrysler chief Lee Iacocca. In fact, other than running car companies, there is nothing much that would seem to link Barra with Iacocca.
Iacocca was pitchman, huckster and showboat. Barra, so far, is not clearly any of those things. Or, if so, a much gentler, and vastly more astute version.
But part of the point about returning to Iacocca is that, other than tech geniuses and billionaires, there has not really been a clear CEO model since him. Iacocca, along with GE’s Jack Welch, Amex’s Jim Robinson and a memorable list of other hams and egomaniacs, helped create, for better or worse, the ’80s and ’90s cult of the CEO: outsize men (always men) whose companies were their personal expression.
I can’t think of a contemporary conventional-company CEO who would not now wince or even recoil at that management style. This is partly a reflection of the bad odor of American business—any public outing threatens to confront a CEO with issues over even his grandiose pay grade. And it is partly a reflection of a hostile media. Basic survival instincts dictate that a CEO play a circumspect, cautious and internal role. This, however, has meant that the faceless managers and accountants now running the show have left most companies—and arguably American business itself—without voice, ideas or presence.
Curiously, Barra is now no longer a faceless manager, but she seems far from an egomaniac. She is out front, though. She is clearly willing to be General Motors. She’s personifying what the company stands for—owning it. Barra may, in one day of effort, have become the most prominent major CEO in industrial America.
This invariably raises complicated and chilling issues for other CEOs (all of them obsessed with the moves, styles and methods of their fellow CEOs). Once a public role is defined and demonstrated, it becomes obvious that a company’s leadership ought to be able and eager to say what a company is about. What else is there?
Hence, suddenly, with Mary Barra so dramatically owning up, the rest of American C-suites seem not just petrified and hunkered down but wholly unable to adequately express themselves.