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Machine Design

Knuckleheads I’ve worked for

At the age of 81, GM’s former Vice Chairman Bob Lutz doesn’t seem to mind saying harsh things about some of his former bosses. That’s the impression you might get from Lutz’s recent book, Icons and Idiots, wherein he describes some of the irritating, unpredictable, and inflexible managers he’s dealt with.

It is never a barrel of laughs dealing with managers who are pompous and self-important. Lutz makes it clear he’s encountered his share of executives who hold high opinions of themselves. One story in this category struck a chord with me. Lutz was meeting with Ford President Phil Caldwell back in the 1980s when Caldwell hauled a leather-bound album from his desk. As Lutz relates, it contained picture after picture of Caldwell with kings, sheiks, and heads of state. But the most interesting thing about the book was the title Caldwell had given it: Important People Who have Met Me.

…have met me??  “Suddenly, I understood Phil Caldwell, his hopes, dreams, grandeur, and weakness, all brilliantly encapsulated in one simple phrase,” Lutz says.

I can relate. A former big boss of mine once called in two lawyers over a corporate legal matter. As legend has it, the attorneys couldn’t get a word in edgewise for close to two hours. Apparently, Mr. Big was pompous enough to think the two jurists would be grateful to hear lessons from his long business career. So he was shocked when, a few days later, they sent him a bill covering the time spent in his office.

Those of us who worked under this guy similarly wished we could send in bills for our sessions with him.

One era that I found particularly frustrating was back in the 1990s when management consultants peddled the idea that companies had to go through cultural change. This was a period when a lot of executives forced their middle managers to agonize over mission statements, goals, lists of values, and, of course, the quality movement. Lutz was at Chrysler Corp. when all this navel gazing was in vogue. Veterans of this period may recall the framed posters with quaint sayings often found in conference rooms, which tended to elicit snide comments from cynics.  I am sure many of us who lived through that period had the same reaction as Lutz did to such insipid maxims as, There is no such thing as a bad idea. His take: “another stupid homily which I would have loved to roll up and stuff down the throat of the author.”

Companies at the time generally found it beneficial to claim they delivered the nebulous attribute of quality, though few actually did. One incident pretty much sums up the quality initiative in my company. The guy responsible for this fiasco had lapel pins made up with our quality logo. As far as I could see, it was the only outward sign we were a “quality” company. You certainly couldn’t tell from our practices, which didn’t change much at all.

But “quality” at our company was short lived. The lapel pins were so cheaply made that they all broke within a week.

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