JESSE SNYDER: GM misses a chance to show it is in good hands

It's not unprecedented for a company in crisis to oust a CEO, but General Motors Co.'s handling of the announcement today was truly chaotic.

At a meeting in Detroit, the new board fired Fritz Henderson. Chairman Ed Whitacre adds Henderson's CEO role until a replacement is found.

It was a moment to demonstrate that the new board has a clear vision for GM's future, that GM is in steady hands -- stable but willing to make bold decisions to protect the interests of the taxpayers, who own most of the giant automaker.

That's not what happened.

GM hastily called a 4:30 p.m. news conference. After about 10 minutes of a Webcast that consisted of an empty podium, Whitacre walked in, looking exactly like a 68-year-old man who had just finished a long boardroom fight, and delivered a brief statement.

A search for a CEO starts immediately. Whitacre said he'll now be in his GM office “daily,” then declined to answer questions and walked off.

That left only an unbriefed Chris Preuss, the global communications chief, to answer questions. He had few answers.

Why was Henderson out? Preuss didn't know.

What was the disagreement between the board and Henderson? Preuss wasn't sure there actually was any disagreement.

Would GM look outside the company, and what compensation could GM offer under federal limits on pay for top officers? Preuss couldn't say.

Will GM set up an office for Whitacre? He already has one, Preuss managed to answer.

Would Whitacre, who lives in Texas, move to Detroit if he's now full-time? Preuss didn't know.

Well, then, in general terms, what attributes was GM looking for in a new CEO? “Again, I'm not in charge,” Preuss said. “There is a search.”

How unprepared was GM to announce the departure of its second CEO this year?

Half the questions Preuss fielded after Whitacre left were about the board's decision to wait a month for new bids for Saab. That's because Preuss was better briefed and could answer those questions.

When GM fails to answer questions as basic as why Henderson is out, others will fill in the blanks. The rumor mill is in motion before the ink is dry on Henderson's resignation.

The new GM blew its latest opportunity to show it had shed its former arrogance. It may not get another chance soon.

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