Executive Lessons: What Not To Learn From Detroit's Big 3


Leadership has taken a pounding this autumn, which can serve up lessons for execs in all walks of life. Granted we are in the midst of an unprecedented market meltdown.

But the CEO’s of GM ,Ford and Chrysler put on a remarkable show last week on Capitol Hill. They went before Congress (and a national TV audience) to beg for $25 billion. The pitch was pathetic and ultimately fell on deaf ears.

Give us the money or we’ll have to go bankrupt. And if we go bankrupt, thousands of union workers may be thrown out of jobs. And thousands of employees in the U.S. automobile manufacturing supply chain could be affected too. However, we don’t really have a plan; it will be business as usual; and we’ll probably burn through the $25 billion early next year and be back for more. Oh, and we got here on private gas-guzzling jets.

The key audacity was Rick Wagoner’s claim that he shouldn’t step aside because nobody else would really know how to successfully run General Motors. With a huge salary, big bonus, hot and cold running jets and a constant supply of new cars to drive, it’s understandable that Rick doesn’t want to give up his job. But he should.

This is one of the lessons all execs can learn. There’s absolutely no reason why we always have to be the last one to find out that the jig is up. Look, some leaders have the luck and the smarts to last a long time (see Gates, Bill; Welch, Jack; Jobs, Steve). But for most of us mere mortals—especially in the current, brutally competitive and unforgiving environment—five years is a lifetime and ten years is forever (see Yang, Jerry; Fuld, Dick; and Wagoner, Rick). Yet, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the leader is out of ideas and out of gas (pun intended) he just won’t hand if off to someone with fresh ideas and unbridled energy.

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One can see this tendency in any company, division of a company and unit within a division. Tired leadership that refuses to surrender doesn’t help anybody, including the leader in question. Ideally, when that moment is reached the leader should own up to it and find a way to step aside. In the increasingly obsolete “ladder” model of career development, it is particularly difficult to make that move. (Who wants to fall off a ladder?) But the new career reality is more multi-dimensional with more “lateral” or even “downward” movements available to make gains for the contemporary executive.


Erik Sorenson is chief executive officer of Vault.com, Inc. Mr. Sorenson, 52, oversees the strategic direction of the global, New York-based media company. He is widely regarded as an expert on media strategy and industry trends, with experience spanning radio, local and network broadcast television, cable and syndicated TV, and the Internet. From 1998 through 2004, Mr. Sorenson served as president of the MSNBC cable news channel. He has won more than twenty Emmy awards as a writer, producer, and television executive.

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