Retired CEO narrates his past and what he learned creating a corporate giant and saving a crumbling corporation.
By Juan Anthony Rodriguez
Whether reinventing a phone company or rescuing a manufacturing behemoth, good leaders must inspire enthusiasm among their workers, the former CEO of AT&T and General Motors said Tuesday night in the nursing complex.
“People are the key to success, and you can’t go it alone,” he said.
More than 175 alumni and guests attended “A Conversation with Ed Whitacre,” the first lecture in the Masters Leadership Program’s series of speakers.
Robert Rivard of the Rivard Report facilitated the discussion.
The lecture was filled with highlights from Whitacre’s new book, “American Turnaround: Reinventing AT&T and GM and the Way We Do Business in the USA.”
Whitacre, who started his career as an engineer, confided that transitioning to a CEO was easy for him.
“I knew since I was a junior in college that I didn’t want to be an engineer, but I didn’t want to lose my hours,” HE SAID.
Whitacre said his success would never have happened without some failures, including the purchase of a Chilean cable company and an unsuccessful return on a media outlet in Africa.
He provoked laughter when he admitted another “failure.” “I got old too fast; there is still a lot to do,” Whitacre said.
He shared his successes, too. He said he met with Steve Jobs, head of Apple, and they introduced the world to the iPhone. He said together they changed the face of mobile telecommunications for years to come.
Whitacre also discussed turning what was once Southwestern Bell into the telecommunications giant AT&T, over a 17-year period.
He talked about his reluctance to take on new challenges as chairman of the board at General Motors.
After retiring from AT&T, Whitacre said he was asked to head up the board at General Motors.
“I turned them down repeatedly because I didn’t know anything about cars,” he said.
But he finally agreed, and later pinch-hit as CEO, too. During a futile search for a new head of GM, the board asked Whitacre to fill in as CEO and also continue as board chair.
He said General Motors had to file for bankruptcy and was on the verge of closing its doors.
The federal government was bailing out the automobile giant, and Whitacre was overseeing its resurgence.
While at GM, Whitacre said he learned the importance of getting the workforce excited despite the risk of reshaping the company.
“If you have your workforce excited, your have their support,” he said. “You have to have the people’s loyalty and excitement.”
Whitacre said leaders have to share ideas and innovations with their workforce. He said he remembers the assembly workers’ reaction after seeing him talk to workers at the manufacturing plant. They were surprise that a company executive was on the work floor engaging assembly workers.
Changing corporate culture and his assembly line’s perspective on corporate executives allowed employees to become more invested in the outcome of the company’s ventures, he said.
He also made strides to have his workforce keep up with technology. Whitacre applauds companies that invest in employee education and training.
He said H-E-B and Rackspace offer such programs.
Whitacre expressed his optimism about the future of manufacturing in the United States.
One of the audience members asked whether there will be any manufacturing plants or jobs in the future.
Whitacre immediately named companies that have moved their manufacturing to other countries, where they can pay their workforce less. Companies should realize a cheaper labor force also affects the quality of the product, Whitacre said.
He said he is certain a skilled and educated workforce will still attract companies to make manufacturing a viable industry in the United States.