Ed Whitacre is the Texan son of a railroad engineer. He grew up believing he would never leave his hometown, a little place called Ennis about 30 miles outside Dallas. Instead, he took a job at Southwestern Bell, which was his first stepping stone toward running the world’s largest telecom company. “To this day I still don’t know exactly how I got the job,” writes Whitacre American Turnaround.
The book chronicles his rise within the phone giant that later became AT&T, from his early days in the 1960s to his role as CEO in making the company the exclusive carrier of the iPhone in 2007. Those elements of his story are intriguing, but the Whitacre’s take on General Motors is even more fascinating.
Two years after leaving AT&T, he was the man tasked to lead GM out of Chapter 11. With a respected legacy and no role in bankrupting what once was the world’s largest carmaker for 70 straight years, Whitacre is free to condemn a firm that he says had “no plan, no strategy” when he arrived.
After Washington bailed out General Motors, the company rebranded itself as the “new GM.” But as Whitacre saw it, nothing had changed but the marketing spin. “The ‘new GM’ was just like the old GM, except it was smaller and had $50 billion in taxpayer money to keep it going for awhile.”
The book also features the requisite management advice every executive who writes a book feels compelled to deliver. Though Whitacre sticks to the CEO-as-author formula, it isn’t all parables and unobjectionable truths. He actually has some things to say.
Whitacre calls Six Sigma something leaders use as “a very handy way to pass the buck” to employees. Of matrix management, under which workers report to multiple bosses, he says that “in practice not much gets done.” And he disagrees that anything can ever be “just business, nothing personal.”
In many ways, American Turnaround mimics many other CEO memoirs, but few include such candid moments, and none can claim to have Whitacre’s unique view of AT&T and GM.