Trying Times: GM CEO Leads with Integrity as Company Braces for Change

The Leadership and Values Committee hosted an interactive discussion with Rick Wagoner (MBA ’77), chairman and CEO of General Motors, Thursday, October 13. The discussion, titled “Leading with Integrity During Times of Change,” focused on the challenges of leadership in difficult situations, such as those presently faced by General Motors.

Students Chris Alff (OG) and Mike Lashbrook (OG) began the session by asking Mr. Wagoner questions focused on his values, his responsibility to various stakeholders in the business, and the challenges of leadership in a large multinational company. Mike, a former and future employee of GM, asked several difficult questions that elicited enthusiastic response from Mr. Wagoner and the audience.

Following Chris and Mike’s questions, Mr. Wagoner engaged the audience in a question and answer period. Questions from the audience reflected the varying interests of students, ranging from religion in the workplace, to GM’s Corporate Social Responsibility program, to the threat from China.

Speaking on the topic of the company’s responsibility to its stakeholders, a particularly salient topic considering the recently announced bankruptcy of Delphi and GM cuts in postretirement benefits, Mr. Wagoner firmly stated his belief that the only option is to take a long term view, and that doing so aligns the interests of all stakeholders. When commenting on GM’s incentive system, however, Mr. Wagoner highlighted the importance of shareholders, explaining that management’s incentives are tied to the creation of value.

One question from the audience that prompted a lengthy response from Mr. Wagoner concerned the fuel economy of GM’s fleet and GM’s attitude toward climate change. In light of GM’s historical policy of responding to consumer demand, Mr. Wagoner explained that the new challenge is to offer automobiles that consumers still want but that meet tighter fuel economy standards. The answer, he claimed, is improved technology, particularly fuel cells. Regarding climate change, Mr. Wagoner again stressed the importance of technological solutions, and cautioned against policies that could constrain economic growth.

Many students found Mr. Wagoner to be humorous and unassuming. Often poking fun at Mike for asking difficult questions, Mr. Wagoner also made several jokes about his own performance on the job. Erin Alff, an employee in Student and Academic Services, remarked “I was surprised to see the CEO of such a large organization being so down to earth. He really had me laughing with several of his responses.”

For Mike, the opportunity to interview his future boss was both intimidating and fulfilling: “I joked with my friends that I might get fired, but in the end I really enjoyed being able to interact with such an influential, yet approachable, person.”

Mr. Wagoner himself seemed to enjoy the event. Prior to the session, he told the interviewers that the day was the easiest one he had had in a long time. Prior to the presentation, he sat in on two AMP classes who were studying a GM case. Later, he met with Acting Dean Jay Light, filmed an interview with AMP faculty, and toured the new Baker library.

Mr. Wagoner did give students some parting advice. Regarding work/life balance, Mr. Wagoner explained that not only does working long hours lead to burn out, but also, that for him, making time to watch his son’s football games actually energizes him. Additionally, he implored students to take jobs that they knew they would enjoy, not jobs they perceive necessary for advancement.