New Ford CEO Fields Versus General Motors CEO Barra: Operator Versus Bureaucrat

May 7 2014, 5:21am CDT | by

Ford’s new CEO Mark Fields and General MotorsMary Barra both are corporate insiders who have earned their roles over time. Barra has been a functional leader, well honed to manage one of the world’s largest bureaucracies while Field has been an operating general manager, pulling all the functions together to humble General Motors over and over again. Looking down the road, the smart bet is on the operating general manager.

Why? Because functional leaders are all about functional excellence while operators are all about doing what it takes to win. If they can win with excellence, terrific. But they’ll always choose the ugly win over the elegant loss.

Barra is a 33-year GM veteran and the daughter of a 39-year GM veteran. She started working at GM at age 18 and has held increasingly senior positions in engineering, human resources and, most recently product design, purchasing and supply chain.

Fields is a 25-year Ford veteran who has run Ford’s operations in Argentina, Mazda, the Premier Automotive Group and North America. As Forbes’ Joann Muller describes it, Fields’ results have won over her and other doubters along the way.

At the time of GM’s bankruptcy in 2009, Barra was VP of Global Manufacturing Engineering. No way you can blame that bankruptcy on her. As one of her mentors, Gary Cowger said, “she does an amazing job of getting grounded, understanding what’s important and what’s not and executing very well.”

At the same time, Fields was heading up Ford’s North American operations which he turned around from being the company’s biggest money-loser to its biggest money-maker – one of the main reasons Ford was able to stay out of bankruptcy during the financial crisis.

The fundamental question is whether an organization is better off with a CEO known for “executing very well”, or with one known for leading the organization to the right results in the right way.

Implications for Barra

The risk for Barra, assuming she survives GM’s latest ignition recall, is that she will not be able to get GM out of it’s long-term habit of denial. Remember, GM used to have 60% of the US automotive market. They have spent decades either ignoring or not seeing the trends working against them as their market share continues down. To succeed, Barra has to change the culture. This is exactly the same issue that Siemen’s new CEO is facing.

Implications for Fields

Fernando Aguirre, former CEO of Chiquita, once told me that his most important lieutenants were his CFO and head of HR. Because he was an operator himself, he could fill in for his operating heads when they ran into trouble. But he needed particularly strong help in finance and human resources because those were not his strengths. Fields is going to need the same – and should probably start moving in this direction as part of his own new leader’s 100-day action plan.

Leadership Pipeline Steps
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Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way downplaying the critical import of strong functional leadership or the value of executing well. I am in no way suggesting that you should not look to your functions when thinking about succession planning. I am suggesting that once you identify rising stars in a function, you should give them operating general management experience to round them out.

Drotter, Noel, and Charan’s Leadership Pipeline identified six key “turn promotions”:

From:

  • managing self through
  • managing others
  • managing managers
  • functional manager
  • business manager
  • group manager to
  • enterprise manager

Barra has essentially jumped from being a functional manager to enterprise manager, skipping the steps of managing a business and group.

Don’t do that to your rising stars. Move them through the steps in order so you produce seasoned enterprise managers and not bureaucratic super-functional managers.

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