COLUMN: A lesson locally ignored

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By John Loehr

Twenty-some-odd years ago, I received a check from General Motors that was large enough to pay off my heavily mortgaged Corrales home, buy my first Montezuma residence, purchase (ironically) a lovely new Mercedes Benz and retire a major divorce settlement debt due an ex-wife.

The money was part of a consulting fee to me and several partners who had been providing top-level strategic and tactical operating advice to the GM CEO and his well-suited team of white, male, Ann Arbor and Lansing engineers and accountants.

One outcome of our business management consulting work was a careful and thorough analysis of GM’s marketplace strengths and weaknesses. Our conclusions echoed, at least, the judgments of Consumer Reports: GM’s products were poorly designed, badly assembled and lacking durability, as compared to the foreign — principally Japanese — competition. We told GM, in a well-documented and detailed conclusion, that they were in serious trouble and would remain so until and unless the leadership began thinking differently about how and why they did their business.

GM’s top men listened politely, asked a modicum of clarification questions, praised us effusively and surprised us with a seven-figure check to show their respect and appreciation for our genuinely innovative work.

I began to hope, against my most cynical instincts, that GM, as a result of our efforts, might actually begin to believe and behave differently. That spark of optimism was quickly snuffed when I was told personally by their CEO that GM had learned a great deal from our analysis, so much that the first thing they were going to do in response to our findings was “spiff up” their dealer showrooms. I was flabbergasted by this conclusion and said so, but the CEO reiterated his decision, citing it as proof positive that they were “ready to think differently” as a result of our work. My pessimism about GM was quickly revived and remains to this day.

As we all know, GM has now entered its death throes as a result of its inability to change its way of doing business. Our little management consulting firm, however, went on to moderate successes, acquiring large corporate clients in the U.S. and Europe, eventually achieving the luxury of breaking up, the senior partners going their own ways and starting up our own ventures, some of which thrived.

The point of all this is that we can quickly and easily look around our own community — our city government, our community college, our school systems, for instance — and identify those erstwhile leaders who face an extreme need to think differently about their roles, missions and purposes. As with GM, the formula for their success, apparently as unknown to our local cadre as it was to the GM crew, is not just to think differently, but to decide how and why to do so. Knowing the right thing to do, and how to accomplish it, is the plainly visible secret. GM couldn’t figure it out and now, years later, we see the dramatic consequences.

Too many of our own community leaders cannot seem to learn from these experiences of others — they seem not to know what they don’t know — and that causes our community to remain steadfastly at the bottom of most league tables.

Do we, like GM, need a marketplace (i.e., electoral) upheaval to drive this message home to inattentive and incompetent local leaders? Or will we, a micro-example of GM, continue to wither and self-mutilate our way to a permanent resting place on the bottom?

John Loehr lives in Montezuma. He may be reached at 454-1731.