Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Culture of Deference at GM

Alex Taylor wrote an article about the demise of General Motors in a recent issue of Fortune. In that article, he has a wonderful anecdote that suggests a great deal about the culture at GM. Here's the story. I leave it to the reader to draw the obvious conclusions...

Back in 2004, when it was still relatively flush, General Motors invited automotive journalists to the South of France for a three-day "global product seminar." The idea was that writers like me would drive new cars, consume loads of free food and wine, pal around with executives, and develop favorable opinions about GM.

Still a little jet-lagged, I arranged to drive with chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner in a yellow Corvette. Our route would take us from the Four Seasons resort in Provence, where we were staying, through the French countryside and on to the Paul Ricard race circuit near Marseille in time for lunch. My job was to navigate while Wagoner drove, but I used the face time to pepper him with questions rather than pay attention to the route book.

Polite and good-humored as usual, Wagoner mostly ignored my directions and followed the car in front of us. Two hours later we found ourselves back at the hotel. I had been navigating from the wrong map, and the car in front of us, driven by Chinese journalists, was just as lost as we were. Lunch would be delayed while we hurriedly made our way to the track, meaning I had effectively kidnapped the chairman of General Motors for three hours.

Sure, we had been tailed the whole time by Wagoner's security detail, but it remained behind at a respectful distance and never stopped to ask us where we were going. What I learned from the incident were several things. First, never underestimate the ability of a know-it-all journalist to get it wrong. And second, at some point good manners and civility become a liability rather than an asset.