Wednesday, July 10, 2019

A Great Article on one Aspect of General Motors Corporation History

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General Motors Building, New York City

The "finance men" at General Motors have often been blamed as the reasons why the firm has fallen on hard times during the past 40 years. What happened to the "car guys" and engineers at GM? Arthur Jones sent me sometime back what he considered as the best article ever published in the Automotive History Review -- William P. MacKinnon's "Developing General Motors Chairmen: The Extraordinary Role of GM's New York Treasurer's Office Since World War I," AHR, 32( Spring 1998), 9-18. Jones may be right about this article, as I found it incredibly informative, written by someone who was for a time but who also is a published historian with a sense of context. It is a good thing that I started to review my file folders this summer!

MacKinnon begins by citing a number of units within major organization that have had a powerful impact on future leadership -- the Skunk Works at Lockheed, the Jesuits within the Catholic Church, the Europeans operations group at Ford Motor Company, the the Green Berets at the U.S. Army Special Forces. At GM since WWI it was for a time Kettering's Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company and Harley Earl's Art & Colour Section, and then to the recent past the small New York Treasurer's Office. The number of leaders coming out of that office at GM, other firms, and government is astonishing, and you can scan the list by reading the article. AT GM it included Jones M. Roche; Richard C. Gerstenberg; Thomas A Murphy; Roger Smith; Robert Stempel; John F. Smith; and Rick Waggoner.

While this article is a celebration of that story of leadership, it does not explore the failings of these men in terms of sustaining the momentum that had its origins with Pierre DuPont and Alfred P. Sloan.  Is it fair to say that these executives were not car people, and thus did not really understand the technology, the cars, and intangible consumer and social behavior? Did they have weaknesses of communication and human relations that blinded them in ways different than what engineers may have possessed?  Should GM have recruited liberal arts majors instead for their top positions?

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