GM Props

This article is a good example of the phenomenon that Tim Almond likes to point out:

GM becomes first major auto company in history to have a female CEO and a female CFO

Let’s be clear: there are many, many women working and thriving in the global auto industry. Quite a few are also on leadership positions, with titanic responsibilities.

But as a whole, the business has long been thought of as a bastion of “car guys.” That’s why Wednesday’s news that General Motors’ CFO, Chuck Stevens, would retire and be succeeded by 39-year-old Dhivya Suryadevara was astounding.

GM now has two women running the show, with Suryadevara as CFO and Mary Barra as CEO.

Firstly, good for the women concerned; I’m sure they’ll do a wonderful job. But General Motors is a lumbering behemoth which was saved from bankrupcy only by government intervention involving Barack Obama tearing up the rulebook on debtor hierarchies to benefit his union chums. GM hardly represents the organisation of the future, and very much looks like a dinosaur which should have been put out of its misery a long time ago. That it should now be run by two women to much celebration supports the theory that high-flying businesswomen are more likely to take over long-established organisations than start and grow their own, and that the companies they run are well into the tail in terms of industry life cycles. In other words, it would be a lot more newsworthy were two women selected to run a biotech company than a car manufacturer (it was an appreciation of this fact which undoubtedly contributed to the excitement around the now-disgraced Elizabeth Holmes). Or, to put it another way, where is the smart money going these days and who is in charge of it?

This ties in nicely with my dissertation research, which looks at the percentages of women at the senior level in fast growing companies and compares them with those in the largest companies. I’m still collecting the data but the early signs are that smaller, fast-growing companies have a lower percentage of women in top positions than the largest companies. In other words, companies put women in charge only once they are established and have reached a certain size. This uplifting story about GM now being run by two women appears to support this theory. See also this post.

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12 thoughts on “GM Props

  1. Interesting. This reminds me of Sir John Glubbs essay, ‘The fate of empires and the search for survival’ where he states that late stage empires tend to have more women in business and politics than do the dynamic up and coming ones.

  2. Growing companies are too busy growing and watching out for the competition to worry over much about political correctness. When they become fat and lazy, and growth is being achieved mainly through lobbying government, then they create giant HR departments (staffed mainly by women) to enforce the PC ‘rules’.

    Read Bob ‘Up the Organization’ Townsend – though I suspect you may have already done so 🙂

  3. I think your thesis is interesting and certainly more important to society than the gender phenomenon lots of people have noticed in major media franchises, but the traits are very similar: take a well-established media property whose popularity was established by mostly male characters playing to a mostly (often overwhelmingly) male audience, then as the property wanes in creative energy just drop a bunch of sheilas in the cast and crew and turn the marketing to 11. Receive praise from other media types and blame any negative financial results on internet trolls.

    See also: it’s time for a woman on the moon…50 years after men did the impossible.

    See also: Earhart, Amelia

  4. It would be interesting to know how many of these appointments are to make sure they tick all the right boxes when bidding for government contracts or ensuring further favours and bailouts.

    The State’s thumb is definitely on the scales when it comes to large contracts and it won’t hurt when GM and other failing companies start handing out the begging bowl looking for further bailouts either in direct cash or in the form of regulation and import tariffs.

    Is Congress really going to turn two women away and tell them their company doesn’t deserve to survive?

  5. Thanks. It’s an observation by The Last Psychiatrist and I noticed it kept on fitting. You see it in computing. Companies like HP, IBM and Oracle that are on their way to oblivion are run by women.

    It also doesn’t discount women doing a sterling job. Kate Swann turned WH Smith from a loss-making company to a profitable one.

    But car making fits the pattern. Cars went through the decades of major improvement long ago. Yes, they still improve but its really marginal compared to the 60s-80s. And they’re facing all sorts of disruption now.

  6. When I think back over my career from small to large size firms in the UK, US and Australia I have only met one senior female that was on the ascendancy and deservedly made it to the top. That was Sue Murphy that I have mentioned on here before, she retired last year as the CEO of a major water resource authority, I met her in a previous role. I see that she was recently awarded the Order of Australia.

    Admittedly I worked in the construction sector but there just wasn’t and isn’t any female movers and shakers in that space that I came across. This includes boards where I have met quiet a few female non-exec directors and company secretary types, I wasn’t that impressed with them in either of these roles as well.

  7. +1 For what Chris Miller said. Only those companies with plenty of fat and enough cash to indulge in frivolous experiments are likely to take on females at board level and it is equally likely that they are Heads of HR or other non core business activities and only there to make up the required diversity numbers.

    Same for Chris Almond’s comment. Hewlett Packard is the poster child for a successful company managed into irrelevance by the female CEO.

    It would be interesting to compile a list of companies that were top of their game that were taken over by a female CEO and are no longer profitable, let alone existing and contrast that list with companies that at least held their own if not went on to greater and better things.

  8. Tim A,

    It also doesn’t discount women doing a sterling job. Kate Swann turned WH Smith from a loss-making company to a profitable one.

    Just a thought, but given what we know about the gender-equality paradox perhaps women have a better feel for retail and other non STEM driven businesses?

  9. Yup, once companies reach a certain size they are required to jump through social media hoops and pretend they like to do so. Are you examining how many of the new tremendously vaginally-empowered execs are in HR or Finance, as distinct from engineering or frontline management?

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