GM CEO Dan Akerson’s Top 9 Leadership Lessons

After three years on the job, GM CEO Dan Akerson tells what he’s learned about leading a major company’s revival.

Daniel Akerson, electrical engineer and finance man by training, Naval officer by decree, executive by design, and, since 2010, General Motors CEO almost by default.

Akerson, 64, spent years atop telecommunications and technical companies, as well as running a big private investment fund, and he believes those are the places he absorbed the management lessons he’s taken to GM.

The most important:

“Fundamentally, no kidding, it’s all about leadership. I don’t think you have to be a subject-matter expert,” he said in an interview with USA TODAY. “Complex organizations have many common challenges.”

Akerson took the top job at GM three years ago next month, and on his watch, the once-wrecked automaker has bloomed. Outsiders aren’t sure how much of that is Akerson’s direct doing and how much is a combination of a recovering economy and an array of good products, designed before he got there and launched while he’s been chief.

He was greeted in Detroit by a raspberry. “Not a car guy,” was the derisive verdict. In fact, “Who is this guy,” was the louder chant.

Fortunate, then, that leadership skills are portable.

“Leadership skills can carry you from equities management to corporate jobs. Leadership is transferable,” says Alan Merten, president emeritus of George Mason University, author and expert on leadership and management.  Akerson is “a good example of someone who took his knowledge and leadership skills with him wherever he went,” according to Merten.


Here are Akerson’s executive-level lessons from squiring GM after the crucible of bankruptcy reorganization. He believes that what’s been learned will help get through “the hard part” that Meyers foresees. His way:

• Make goals clear. In GM’s case, the Chapter 11 reorganization allowed the automaker to  cut costs by eliminating brands and workers, giving it some momentum. But “you can’t live on a crisis mode,” Akerson said, and must return a troubled company to more normal operations. To make that happen, he said, a CEO’s role is “to articulate that vision, and a strategy, what you want to accomplish.”

• Overhauling top management ruffled some feathers, but created more focused leadership.

Says Meyers: “Almost all top, key people are new and aggressive, intelligent, articulate. That’s to his (Akerson’s) credit.”

Meyers says that Akerson “pulled no punches in changing the people who, in his mind, needed to be changed.”

• Insist that “good enough” just isn’t. Akerson: “I was told one time when I asked about quality: ‘It’s as good as anyone else’s.’ Well, when I was in school and if I’d have come home and told my dad, that I did as well as everybody else — a ‘C’ didn’t cut it. What are we doing to improve?”

He once walked out of a Cadillac meeting because what he considered a modern telecommunications/connectivity system was being discussed for several years down the road instead of for immediate use. And when engineers and product planners tell him some feature that he thinks is necessary might be too expensive, he’s likely to say, “Figure it out. No more excuses.”

 • “Question the status quo,” he insists. Past practices “can be flawed,” no matter how tightly held they are within a company. “You have to be able to define reality,” Akerson says.

In this case, that meant axing some of what die-hards thought made up the core of GM, such as investing in new powertrains even though they might be too expensive, might not work in a variety of vehicles, or might not be sufficiently different from those already in production.

• Be quick to capitaIize on good ideas. From his time in the telecommunications business, he notes that it’s often smaller operations, not the giants such as AT&T, that capitalize on fresh technology and turn it into profit-making enterprises.

“We are the most prolific patenter in the automotive industry, but we weren’t converting that to commercial” use, he said. At a GM management meeting he asked for examples of “three or four things that are in the cars today that we invented in the last 10 years. There weren’t any.”

•Tackle the back room, the information technology and accounting methods that sound boring but are the foundation of how modern companies operate. “Reform some of (the) systemic issues that cause problems,” is how he puts it.

• If it’s not working, quit doing it. “We’re not going to sustain operations in the business that continually lose.”

• Don’t let up. “You have to be a patient and constructive critic,” he says.

• Don’t get distracted from the main reason you’re there.

Akerson: “Fundamentally, I’ve got to run a business that’s going to turn profits.”

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