In his column in today's New York Times, David Brooks quotes from two memos by GM executives:
a brave and prophetic memo. Its main point was contained in this
sentence: “We have vastly underestimated how deeply ingrained are the
organizational and cultural rigidities that hamper our ability to
On Jan. 26, 2009, Rob Kleinbaum, a former G.M. employee and consultant,
wrote his own memo. Kleinbaum’s argument was eerily similar: “It is
apparent that unless G.M.’s culture is fundamentally changed,
especially in North America, its true heart, G.M. will likely be back
at the public trough again and again.”
Just about smack dab between when those two memos were written, I had a long and fascinating interview with super-communicator John Onoda, who had been recruited from Levi-Strauss, where he had practically invented the concept of transparency and created one of the most forward-thinking communication operations in the world.
Alas, Onoda was initially overwhelmed and then quickly frustrated as VP of worldwide communications at GM. Early on he had hired 10 communicators from outside GM to work in the headquarters. So "thick" was the culture at GM—so thoroughly defined were the cultural mores—that Onoda told me "it was as if I had hired ten Haitians."
Onoda was gone in a couple years; no word on where the Haitians landed.
In his column, Brooks rightly concludes that restructuring and re-strategizing isn't all: "G.M.’s core problem is its corporate and workplace culture—the
unquantifiable but essential attitudes, mind-sets and relationship
patterns that are passed down, year after year."
But then he hopelessly concludes that the federal takeover of GM will make the culture only more of a quagmire. "These thickening bonds between public and private bureaucrats will
fundamentally alter the corporate culture, and not for the better," he writes.
I'm not sure I hold out a great deal of audacious hope for GM. If GM wasn't so terribly crucial to the structure of the economy, I'd probably lump it in with Chrysler, United Airlines and the Sid-and-Nancy combination of Kmart and Sears: Companies living only on their size as their irreparable reputations only worsen. Companies that should give us all a break and give up the goddamn ghost.
But I'm persuaded that keeping GM afloat—at least until the rest of the economy gets stronger and can absorb a liquidation of this magnitude—is a worthy federal effort.
And when I try to imagine GM becoming any more of a cultural quagmire than what John Onoda described to me in the late 1990s, I fail.
Hey: Maybe it's time for Onoda and his gang of Haitians to ride again.
John, are you out there?