Things have gone so poorly for General Motors CEO Mary Barra during her first several weeks on the job that some Detroiters have reverted to conspiracy theories to explain it all. Was Barra set up to become a scapegoat in the ignition-recall debacle?
The chatter was epitomized this week by John McElroy, considered a sage among Detroit automotive observers, in a radio commentary. McElroy asked, “Was Mary Barra thrown under the bus” by her predecessor, GM CEO Dan Akerson, and perhaps by the GM board?
McElroy’s theory seemed to be that Akerson could have known something late last year about the coming cataclysmic recall because he left so abruptly as GM CEO in December, when he hand-picked Barra to succeed him. At that time, Akerson cited the extreme illness of his wife as a significant factor in the timing of his move. Previously, Akerson had indicated that he would pass the torch sometime in 2014.
But last month, Akerson suddenly resurfaced as vice chairman of the Carlyle Group, rejoining the private-equity firm.
“So [Akerson] doesn’t have time to be chairman of General Motors, but he does have time to be vice chairman of Carlyle?” McElroy mused. “Nothing has done more to feed that conspiracy [theory] than that.”
The logical conclusion of that theory is that Barra actually could become a sacrificial lamb rather than just a scapegoat, and lose her job even though she’s the high-profile first female CEO of a major automotive company.
While you’re pondering that notion, here’s a similarly conspiratorial idea, but one with an intentionally opposite outcome: that Barra was selected for the job because, as a a woman, she would become practically inoculated from taking the fall for the ignition-switch recall unless somehow she was found to be complicit.
It’s deemed possible that any new male CEO of GM may have been prompted to fall on his sword at this point, for the good of the company. In a hyper-sensitive era in which GM’s corporate culture has come under the microscope, this could easily have occurred by now, just so GM could get a fresh start with someone not beleaguered — however unfairly — by the recall scandal.
Observe how meekly Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich complied with the calls for his head and resigned last week after only 10 days on the job, once politically progressive software writers at the Silicon Valley-based browser company found out about his perfectly legal contribution six years ago to the Proposition 8 anti-gay-marriage campaign in California.
But in the case of Barra, what board of mostly male GM directors could actually bring itself to fire the company’s first female CEO — especially one whom they had just ensconced in the job with lots of talk about how enlightened the move made them?
Conspirators in this scenario would have had to be extremely clever as well as essentially in Barra’s corner — albeit in a twisted and sadistic way — presuming that she would survive whatever the recall mess threw at her simply because of her gender.
Barra has done just about everything she could to deal forcefully and openly with the ignition-recall crisis; and apparently she never had the opportunity while she was lower in the ranks at GM to precipitate a recall earlier. But the whole episode still may consume her.