GM head Richard Wagoner discusses planning for the future while respecting ties to the past

G. Richard Wagoner, Jr. Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd of MIT Sloan students, GM Chairman and CEO Richard Wagoner advised his audience to “do what you like to do ... and where you think you can contribute.” Discussing his own career path, he said that he first thought about doing what he enjoys most, and that led him to GM.

Wagoner spoke to the students as part of the Dean's Innovative Leader Series. The series offers MIT Sloan students and the broader MIT community an opportunity to hear first-hand the practical, real-world experiences and perspectives of some of the most visible and successful global business leaders.

Led by MIT Sloan Professor and Dean Emeritus Glen Urban, the students engaged with Wagoner in a question-and-answer format, giving the event a less formal, conversational feel.

Guided by history

A repeated theme throughout Wagoner's conversation was the role that the company's history must play in any of GM's major business strategies. Wagoner cited the important role of “legacy costs,” such as pensions for retired workers and rising health care costs, in any sort of recovery plan.

Newer companies, he said, have a smaller workforce and many fewer retired workers to plan for, while many foreign companies simply do not have the health-care costs faced by U.S. manufacturers.

Driving toward the future

A number of student questions dealt with issues of innovation, such as GM's late entry into the hybrid vehicle market. In response, Wagoner stated that, “We're [in] the first five seconds of a 24-hour hybrid day.” Thus, it is still early in the game.

Noting that GM has also chosen to focus on developing better fuel cell technology, instead of just jumping into hybrid production, Wagoner stressed the importance of careful planning when developing the next generation of technology. He said there is a need to be sensitive to business concerns, but the company must make sure the product meets all consumer requirements in order to be successful.

On the subject of hydrogen cars, Wagoner said they are still a decade away. The technology is not quite ready yet, and certain costs still need to be reduced, such as distribution and sourcing of hydrogen fuel. He said that ethanol and biofuels are what is getting attention right now. There is currently investment in technologies to refine fuels and build cars that can run on these “flex fuels.”

Keeping a sharp focus

Overall, Wagoner pushed the need for careful planning. In order to be successful, he said a leader has to worry about his or her own business and shareholders and not focus so much on what other companies are doing.

Pointing to an example of putting GM first, he explained the absence of an anticipated alliance with automakers Renault and Nissan. According to Wagoner, there was simply not enough value for shareholders in the proposed projects, relative to what GM would be contributing in resources and effort.

Finally, Wagoner was asked what GM is currently doing to attract the best and brightest talent to join its organization. After explaining global opportunities for personal development and broad-based careers in a single company, he summed it up best by saying simply, “People who go to work [at GM] love cars.”

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