FORTUNE -- Timing is everything. Consider, if you will, the story of Mary Barra, the first female chief executive of General Motors, who in less than a month went from pioneer to punching bag. For something that's clearly GM's fault, and some of her predecessors' fault -- but clearly not her fault.
Barra, who spent 33 years clawing her way to the top of GM (GM), became its CEO on Jan. 15, making her an icon of sorts. But less than a month later, GM began recalling vehicles because of its deadly, now-infamous faulty ignition switch. Instead of being praised for perseverance and cracking the glass ceiling, Barra is now a target, getting beaten up on a regular basis in televised Congressional hearings, in media scrums, and in other forums too numerous to name.
I don't normally sympathize very much with CEOs, who get paid amazing amounts of money to assume a lot of responsibility, including taking the heat when the company screws up. If you're getting eight-digit paychecks and thus benefiting from the work of everyone below you in the corporate hierarchy, it's only fair that you get whacked for the sins of your subordinates, even if you knew nothing about them. The buck is supposed to stop somewhere, and the CEO's office is the right place.
But beating up on Barra, which satisfies the bloodlust of Washington pols and makes for good theater and massive buzz, is absurd. Had the ignition-switch recall happened last year instead of less than 30 days after Barra took office this year, Dan Akerson, who became GM's CEO in 2010, would have been the one called in front of Congress to be tortured in the U.S. version of a show trial. Had GM or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or both of them been quick and competent, it might have been Akerson's predecessor, Ed Whitacre, who was tortured.
I totally get the point of focusing blame on an individual, who's identifiable, rather than diffusing it over a big, impersonal corporation. After all, that's the kind of thing I have been doing for a living ever since I learned the art of personalizing companies during my days at Forbes magazine (not to be confused with my current employer Fortune) more than 30 years ago.
But if you're going to beat up on an individual for the failure of a company, you ought to beat up the right individual -- not the person who happens to be CEO when the problem surfaces.
Maybe Congress should be calling Rick Wagoner, the company's CEO from June of 2000 until the government forced him out in 2009 as the price of rescuing the company's operations from collapse. The ignition problem seems to have started and been ignored sometime during his regime, even though I would be willing to bet that Wagoner (whom I know slightly, and kind of like) knew little or nothing about it. But he was in charge then.
Or you could call either of the two CEOs the federal government installed: Ed Whitacre (Dec. 1, 2009 to Sept. 1, 2010) or the aforementioned Akerson (Sept. 1, 2010 to Jan. 15, 2014). There are two other short-timers, but they weren't around long enough to be held responsible.
To be sure -- three of the most weaselly words in journalism -- the unfair beating that Barra is getting doesn't approach the unfairness of the way that Ed Liddy got as chairman of AIG. Barra, after all, is a GM lifer with a serious comp package, while Liddy was serving at $1 a year to preside over a mess he had nothing to do with.
I'm all in favor of accountability. And if you want to hold Barra responsible for the mess of first admitting responsibility, then trying to use GM's 2009 bankruptcy to shield the company from most of the death claims, be my guest.
But if we're going to beat up CEOs for disasters like AIG's reckless financial bets or GM's deadly ignition switches, let's beat up the people who were in charge when the mistakes were made. Not the people who happen to be in charge when the problems surface.
Now that GM has retained lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, observers are speculating that the car maker will create a fund to compensate victims.
FORTUNE -- General Motors CEO Mary Barra wants us to think she means business. In hearings before Congress this week, Barra has stressed that she's doing everything in her power to understand how the company could have built faulty ignition switches linked to 13 deaths and why it took the company MOREChristopher Matthews - Apr 4, 2014 7:49 AM ET
Sale of part of U.S Treasury's stake will yield the public a cash profit.
FORTUNE -- Crocuses and various other bulbs are popping up in my garden, a tangible sign that our brutal East Coast winter has finally ended. Something similar is sprouting on Wall Street, of all places: a tangible sign that taxpayers are finally going to get enough cash to turn a profit on Ally Financial, which had long MOREAllan Sloan, senior editor-at-large - Mar 28, 2014 5:00 AM ET
Contrary to what I wrote last summer, the government is unlikely to recover its full investment in Ally common stock.
FORTUNE -- I'm usually skeptical about what's going on, rather than rhapsodic. So it was a departure from form when I wrote six months ago that, confounding expectations, the government was going to come out way ahead on the $17.2 billion of taxpayer money that it spent to bail out Ally MOREAllan Sloan, senior editor-at-large - Jan 24, 2014 9:00 AM ET
Today's young women are the first in modern history to start their careers making nearly as much as men, but they have a pretty dim view of their prospects.
FORTUNE -- General Motors' (GM) decision to name Mary Barra its next chief executive has been hailed as a breakthrough for women. The daughter of a die maker who spent 33 years at the U.S. automaker, Barra is setting a milestone in MORENin-Hai Tseng, Writer - Dec 11, 2013 1:13 PM ET
Detroit's bankruptcy could be the wake-up call Congress needs to deal with the residual problems from insufficient growth five years after the financial crisis.
By Mohamed A. El-Erian
FORTUNE -- The strong and impressive recovery of the U.S. auto industry has proven insufficient to prevent the proud "Motor City" having to declare bankruptcy. The next steps involve difficult and complex legal and financial issues, some of which conflict with traditional concepts of MOREJul 22, 2013 8:48 AM ET
Surprise surprise! The U.S. government's investment in GM's former finance arm is paying off.
It's taken almost five years, but one of the government's ugliest ducklings is finally showing signs of turning into a swan. A profitable swan, at that. I'm talking about Ally Financial, formerly GMAC, General Motors' finance subsidiary.
Ally sucked up $17.2 billion of federal bailout money, much of which ended up being used to fill the rat hole MOREAllan Sloan, senior editor-at-large - Jul 2, 2013 5:00 AM ET
FORTUNE -- Here's how I calculated the value of the Treasury's stake in Ally Financial, formerly GMAC, General Motors' finance subsidiary. And how I calculated the value of the stake held by Cerberus Capital and its present (and possibly former) investors.
In late May, shortly after a tentative settlement of the bankruptcy of Ally's Residential Capital subsidiary, Ally announced that it was taking a $1.55 billion charge for expenses connected with MOREAllan Sloan, senior editor-at-large - Jul 2, 2013 5:00 AM ET
America's biggest companies smashed records for earnings in 2011. Too bad the party can't last.
FORTUNE -- Given the sluggish recovery and a strapped consumer, you'd expect to see corporate America trudging along, not racing for glory. In fact, the Fortune 500 are thriving as a group. Unlike the U.S. economy, they've shown quicksilver agility, rapidly shifting their product mix and producing more goods at little new cost. This nimbleness belies MOREShawn Tully, senior editor-at-large - May 7, 2012 12:00 PM ET
Could we soon have city buses without their accompanying pollution?
General Motors (GM) has gotten lots of buzz for its Chevy Volt, but the automaker's most important electric vehicle contribution may not have anything to do with autos at all.
GM today announced a partnership with Proterra Inc., a Golden, Colo.-based maker of "zero-emission commercial transit solutions." More specifically, Proterra makes fast-charge electric buses and automated bus charging station (10 minute recharges). MOREDan Primack - Jun 13, 2011 2:15 PM ET
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