Alumni Perspective – RICK WAGONER, (MBA '77)

General Motors is the world’s largest auto company, selling over 9 million vehicles in 2007 and employing over 260,000 people. At its helm is HBS alumnus Rick Wagoner, who made GM history in 2000 as the youngest person to take over the CEO post. But taking on the position has been no joyride; since 2000 Mr. Wagoner has been faced with leading an organization through labor issues, rising healthcare costs, and a changing competitive landscape. With products touching millions of lives across the globe, GM is a company with tremendous reach and impact. As a result Mr. Wagoner has led the execution of many of the leadership and management theory lessons we learn here at HBS. I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Wagoner as he reflected on his time here at HBS and discussed his success factors post-HBS.

What was your most memorable experience as a student at HBS?

Very early in my first year at HBS I was cold called on 3 cases in all 3 classes. I survived. and I did learn a very valuable lesson; be prepared and do your homework. It’s something I’ve carried with me throughout my career.

What is your favorite HBS memory?

When I was at HBS we used to do funny things to our professors. One of my section’s favorite professors was a prof who is still with HBS today – Roy Shapiro. Near the end of the semester Roy was a little sad because my section still hadn’t pulled a prank on him. So one day everyone [in the section] showed up in class with Roy Shapiro masks and Roy Shapiro nametags.

What is the most important lesson you learned at HBS?

I learned to work with a range of people from many different backgrounds.

What lesson do you know now that you wish you knew when you left at HBS?

I’ve learned that having the right answer is not always the best answer. Sometimes the right answer is not feasible, it is important to find the best answer that can be implemented.

What attributes have contributed to your success post-HBS?

I enjoy my work, I have a passion for what I do, I have a large capacity for work, and I have a lot of good people around me.

Rick Wagoner received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Duke University in 1975 and a MBA from Harvard University in 1977.

After HBS, Mr. Wagoner joined GM as an analyst in GM’s Treasurer’s Office in New York. In 1981 Mr. Wagoner became treasurer of General Motors Brasil (GMB) and later was named GMB’s president and managing director.
From 1992 to 1994 Mr. Wagoner served as executive vice president and chief financial officer of GM. Mr. Wagoner was named president and chief executive officer of GM in June 2000 and was elected chairman of GM in 2003.

Mr. Wagoner is a member of the boards of trustees of Duke University and Detroit Country Day School, the Board of Dean’s Advisors of the Harvard Business School, and the Board of Directors of Catalyst. He is chairman of the Society of Automotive Engineers A World In Motion Executive Committee, and a member of The Business Council, The Business Roundtable, and the Detroit Renaissance Executive Committee.