Lutz: GM nice-guy Wagoner fell victim to bad timing, bad luck

Bob Lutz put a chapter about his old boss, Rick Wagoner, in his new book, which has the word "idiots" in the title.

But Wagoner is no idiot, Lutz writes. He was just too passive, too data-focused and "too nice" to lead General Motors through the toughest period in its history.

"Rick trusted his direct reports and rarely micromanaged, sometimes to a fault," Lutz writes in Icons and Idiots: Straight Talk on Leadership, which was released today. "He was slow to see the weakness or ineffectiveness of some senior executives who looked good, sounded good, and actually did little or were indecisive, but who had come up 'through the ranks' with him. In short, he tolerated less-than-stellar performance."

The book details Lutz's experiences with and impressions of 11 former bosses and mentors, from a teacher at his high school for "academic misfits" (who later became the president of Switzerland) to former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca to Wagoner. Though he clearly admired some of the subjects, Lutz spends much of his time telling stories about each one's peculiarities, such as former Ford CEO Philip Caldwell's demands that his shoelaces be exactly the same length and penchant for collecting free jam jars and soap when traveling to Europe.

Best of all, Lutz gives each leader a report card with numerical scores, presumably to help readers easily identify the titular "idiots." He even was thoughtful enough to include three blank forms and suggest that any readers who served under him might want to give him some better-late-than-never feedback.

Lutz gives Wagoner -- "a magnificent human being" -- a score of 34 out of 50. That includes ratings of 5 out of 5 in the categories of integrity and style, 3 for courage and creativity, and 2 on toughness and consistency. Iacocca gets a 44, while Bob Eaton, whom Iacocca chose as his successor over Lutz, gets a 32.

Among Lutz's criticisms of Wagoner is that he made GM too focused on "time to market" and other misguided metrics, resulting in flops such as the Pontiac Aztek, "the rapidly developed solution to a question nobody had asked." He says Wagoner was too hesitant to make tough decisions, comparing him to an army captain who couldn't bear to send his troops into battle for fear that some would be lost.

"Rick Wagoner was the perfect 'peacetime' CEO," Lutz writes. "His strategy was impeccable and he should have been more successful, but bad timing, bad luck and the weight of still-unexpurgated GM costs and cultural traits proved his undoing. I hated to see him go."

Among Lutz's other revelations in the book:

  • His starting salary as a senior analyst in GM's overseas Forward Planning Department in 1963 was $8,000, or about $60,000 today. "I was thrilled," he writes. Lutz had originally planned to take a position at Ford, but his banker father, who happened to know GM's CEO at the time, intervened.
  • His thoughts on why Iacocca refused to make Lutz his successor: "In short, I was too similar to Iacocca! He instituted what he called his "ABL" succession program, and it stood for 'Anybody but Lutz.' … My lack of deference, my willingness to engage the boss with an attitude bordering on smart-ass, were coming back to roost."
  • His opinion on how Chrysler's merger with Daimler AG might have gone had he not been pushed out: "As things transpired, I believe I could have prevented much of the chaotic misjudgment, misdirection and mismanagement that would soon characterize the powerful but cumbersome DaimlerChrysler."

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