Barra's management style signaled in Wilson negotiations
General Motors' swift, tidy resolution of Harry Wilson's advance on its board and balance sheet has GM CEO Mary Barra's fingerprints all over it.
By that, I mean it was handled efficiently and inclusively, without raising the temperature or decibel level in the room, by all accounts. And it left the opposing side with nothing but nice things to say.
"She ran an effective and efficient process," Wilson told me in an interview. "She didn’t waste time. She was engaged and thoughtful. It was impressive."
Wilson over the weekend agreed to back off his board bid and proposal for an $8 billion share buyback after GM agreed to a $5 billion buyback. GM also tightened its cash target to $20 billion, the low end of its previous goal.
I'm not smart enough to know if GM's move was the right one. Even the ratings agencies -- the arbiters of prudence in balance-sheet handling -- are split. Moody's sounded warning bells. Standard & Poor's praised the move. Wall Street responded with the equivalent of a golf clap: GM's stock rose about 3 percent.
But it's clear that what threatened to morph into a distracting proxy fight was quickly neutralized by Barra and her team at a time when they could ill afford another distraction.
As with last year's recall crisis, Barra took ownership of the Wilson situation. It was Barra who was Wilson's main interface during weeks of talks. Not CFO Chuck Stevens, who has deeper knowledge of GM's balance sheet than anybody. Not GM President Dan Ammann, the previous CFO and a former Wall Street investment banker, who surely can talk Wilson's language more adeptly than can Barra.
Since Barra rose from obscurity in 2011 to become GM's product chief, we've heard a lot -- from her and from peers -- about how she has no patience for the plodding, indecisive GM at which she's spent her entire career.
"My style is to have a rigorous debate before we start on something. 'Is it in or is it out?'" Barra told Automotive News in 2013 while discussing vehicle planning. "What are the most important products to invest in?' And then we just go."
To me, her response to Wilson's advance shows that there is some walk to the talk.
In her public appearances, Barra can come off as a bit pre-programmed. She sticks guardedly to her talking points. She almost never "makes news," the opposite of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO Sergio Marchionne, whose every appearance leaves in its wake a pack of journalists firing off tweets and scrambling for their laptops.
Fast and decisive
But by now I've heard enough from colleagues and constituents such as Wilson to convince me that she's got the people skills inside the company to help it move faster, more decisively.
GM North America President Alan Batey put it to me this way last year:
"She just puts people at ease," Batey says. "And guess what? When you get 10 people around a table actively engaged, you get a better decision than when two of them are telling everyone else what we're going to do."
Batey's not the first person to say nice things about his boss. And it's not surprising that Wilson would praise the CEO. But when you start to hear echoes in the description of Barra's management style, it starts to ring true. In my conversation with Wilson, he used the word "transparent" many times to describe Barra & Co.'s response.
That sounds a lot like descriptions of her handling last year of the deadly ignition-switch defect crisis.
"When you work closely with a team on a situation like this, you get a lot of insight into how they think and how they work," Wilson said. "They listened and they asked great questions. They took all that feedback and discussion and boiled down to a comprehensive proposal. It was really impressive."
For a company criticized for decades as plodding, opaque and too arrogant to take anybody's advice, that's not trivial praise.
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