With Fritz Henderson gone, should an outsider head GM?

Outsider Whitaker is already GM's interim CEO after Fritz Henderson's departure.

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    GM Chairman Ed Whitacre announces the resignation of Fritz Henderson as director, president, and CEO of General Motors on Tuesday in Detroit.
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When Frederick "Fritz" Henderson took the reins of embattled General Motors in March, many observers wondered how long a GM finance expert could hold down the top post at a company that was supposed to be in for a postbankruptcy reinvention.

The answer came late Tuesday: about eight months.

Mr. Henderson, who announced his departure at an evening press conference, is being replaced on an interim basis by Edward Whitacre Jr., the man the Obama administration handpicked to chair the company's board.

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So what next for GM? Has the time come for an outsider CEO? Two signs suggest that this is the automaker's eventual direction.

First, GM is now effectively being run by an auto outsider: Mr. Whitacre made a name for himself as the man who built AT&T into a telecommunication empire. And it's not as if Whitacre was a closet gear head, saying famously "I don't know anything about cars" after his June appointment.

For a company long hobbled by a slow institutional culture, the view of not just an outsider but one from the rapid-fire, ever-changing technology industry could provide just the impetus for change.

Second, GM need only look across the Motor City to see how outsider CEOs can energize automotive brands. Fiat's Sergio Marchionne ran a Swiss inspection and verification company before turning around the troubled Italian automaker; now, he's trying to do the same at Fiat-owned Chrysler. Even more compelling is Alan Mulally, who had been executive vice president at aerospace behemoth Boeing Co., before becoming Ford's CEO in 2006

While GM and Chrysler plummeted into bankruptcy, Mr. Mulally managed to steer Ford into calmer waters: Ford's participation in lobbying for an auto bailout was a sign of solidarity, not an economic necessity. Further, auto sales numbers released Tuesday showed that Ford continues to outdistance its American competition. Its November sales were flat compared with a year ago, while GM's sales fell 2 percent and Chrysler's plunged 25 percent. Ford announced it expected to boost production 58 percent in the next quarter from a year ago; GM said it planned a 75 percent boost.

All good signs, but GM has only begun to dig itself out of a deep hole that will require all the acumen of a born leader humble enough to acknowledge that his underlings know far more about the car business.

Perhaps, the writing was on the wall for former CEO Henderson when GM's chairman — and not the CEO — began cutting the company's prime-time commercials. Whitacre said Tuesday an international search is planned for a new CEO, but when it starts in earnest is anybody's guess.

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