Is GM's board setting up Mary Barra to fail as new CEO?

December 16, 2013: 12:54 PM ET

By not naming Barra as chair and surrounding her with potential CEOs, one management expert believes it may be "back to the future" at General Motors.

By Geoff Colvin, senior editor-at-large

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FORTUNE -- The overwhelming consensus on Mary Barra is that she's an excellent choice to be General Motors' (GM) next CEO. But how well she performs will depend on many factors, and a famous leadership expert is concerned about how GM has prepared the company for the Barra era.

Noel Tichy has watched the auto industry up close as a longtime professor at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. He's well known for having run General Electric's (GE) Crotonville leadership development center under Jack Welch, and he has written or co-written several business bestsellers, including Control Your Destiny or Someone Else WillThe Leadership Engine, and Judgment. His next book, due out in August, is called Succession. He strongly endorses the choice of Barra as CEO -- "a hell of a good leader with a great background," he says. "The bad news is that the board and the CEO [Dan Akerson] have potentially set her up for failure."

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Tichy's first concern is that GM didn't give Barra the chairman's job; GM's board will be chaired by former Cummins CEO Theodore Solso, a GM director for the past 18 months. Splitting the CEO and chairman roles is becoming mainstream -- almost half the S&P 500 companies do it -- but Tichy doesn't like it. "It rarely works and most of the time fails," he says, because it introduces a potential new source of conflict.

A second concern is that GM added a new job, president, which will be held by CFO Daniel Ammann. Tichy says that move is "back to the future at GM, adding layers that get in the way." Presidents were common among U.S. companies in the 1980s but have fallen out of favor; among America's 10 most admired companies in Fortune's latest ranking, for example, you won't find a single one.

Tichy is concerned also that GM has given important jobs to the other CEO contenders. Ammann was one, as was Mark Reuss, who will move into Barra's current job running global product development. Tichy believes it just doesn't work to make them report to the person who got the job they were after.

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Combine those three factors, Tichy believes, and the effect could be significant: "These are serious flaws that can potentially set GM back to the good old days."

A GM spokesman declined to comment on Tichy's views, noting that Barra isn't even CEO yet -- that happens Jan. 15 -- and says the company is content to let performance prove the doubters wrong.

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About This Author
Geoff Colvin
Geoff Colvin
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune

Longtime Fortune editor and columnist Geoff Colvin is one of America's sharpest and most respected commentators on leadership, globalization, wealth creation, and management. As former anchor of Wall Street Week with Fortune on PBS, he spoke each week to the largest audience of any business television program in America. His national bestseller Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else, won the Harold Longman Award as the best business book of 2009.

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