In the spring of 2005, Rick Wagoner faced another in a long line of crises. After a couple of years of relative success, the General Motors chairman saw his company's revenue drop dramatically on the way to a massive second-quarter loss.
Wagoner hatched an idea. GM engineers were working on GMT900, a new generation of its popular pickups and big SUVs scheduled for the next year. If those new trucks arrived several weeks earlier, maybe GM could start catching up on revenue.
Wagoner didn't issue orders. He posed questions.
"On the full-sized pickup pull-ahead, Rick asked the question, 'Could we?' '' recalls Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, the boss of GM's product development. "We decided that, with diversion of engineering effort from other programs, it could be done, and we did it. It was his initiative. But no 'orders' were ever issued."
That's how Rick Wagoner, the man leading General Motors into its second century, gets things done. He rarely issues orders. From his 39th-floor office at GM headquarters overlooking the Detroit River, the 55-year-old chief executive raises issues, asks questions and seeks solutions to challenge after challenge to GM's survival.
"Rick tends to have a firm agenda, which he furthers by suggestion, suasion and insightful questions," says Lutz. "Rarely does he take command and tell his subordinates what to do."
Wagoner gets to the result he wants through insisting on facts and sense.
"It's called patience, coupled with a single-minded sense of purpose and direction," says Lutz. "I would describe Rick's style as 'deceptively gentle.' Direction is framed as doubts and questions and is frequently delivered with a great deal of humor."