Transitioning at GM and Ford Reveal Different Cultures and Circumstances

Both GM’s Dan Akerson and Ford’s Alan Mulally arrived at their respective positions from outside the auto industry. The former is the “accidental car guy” while the latter is the aviation engineer. Their exits are being closely watched but for slightly different reasons.

Akerson, who became GM CEO just before its initial public offering three years ago, helped shepherd the fragile automaker through its final years under U.S. government ownership and leaves with the stock trading near a record high. He’ll be succeeded by Mary Barra, the product-development chief. According to Bloomberg, Akerson became the “accidental car guy.” He took the job of chief executive officer of General Motors Co. by default; out of a sense of duty. “I always knew I’d be viewed somewhat as a transition CEO. We had to right the ship, get it under way, not take it across the ocean,” Akerson told employees yesterday during a meeting that was posted on the Internet, according to USA Today.

He has spent the past three years working to complete a reorganization that was begun in bankruptcy. He often said it would take more than a six-week court action to make the company globally competitive. “Being CEO of General Motors is arguably the toughest auto job in the world just given the size, the complexity,” Adam Jonas, an industry analyst with Morgan Stanley, said in an interview in October. “Akerson has done a fine job of righting the ship.”

Speculation about Ford CEO Alan Mulally’s successor ended in 2012 when the board of directors announced Mark Fields’ promotion to a newly-created position of chief operating officer and said he would run day-to-day operations while Mulally stays through the end of 2014.

Some observers say the drawn-out process has worked so well that if Mulally leaves for Microsoft, his departure would barely ruffle any feathers inside or outside of Ford’s corporate headquarters.

“I think Ford has been a lot more transparent,” Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at Yale School of Management, told USA Today. “The fact that they had a much more careful protégé relationship at Ford, I think, is to be admired.”

Akerson, who turned 65 in October, had been expected to step down within a year or so, and a competition was unleashed among four internal candidates to replace him. In contrast, Mulally has essentially made his succession plan clear years ago when Mark Fields was elevated to the position of president of operations in 2012.




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