Editor’s note: On March 10, after this interview was conducted, General Motors announced that Chris Liddell will leave the company on April 1. He will be succeeded by Daniel Ammann, currently GM’s vice president, finance, and treasurer.
In December, Chris Liddell not only celebrated his one-year anniversary as General Motors’s CFO, but also the company’s stunning initial public offering of the month before, which, among other notable metrics, returned almost $12 billion to the federal government. We caught up with the former Microsoft CFO to ask him about how he has adjusted to life at GM, and what lies ahead.
In his book Overhaul, chronicling the “rescue” of the auto industry, Steven Rattner described you as a “surprise recruit from the tech world” who was “appalled by what he found at GM.” Do you agree with that assessment?
I think that it was probably overly harsh. Inevitably the finance function…is looked at through the lens of the [overall] state of the company, so the fact that it went bankrupt means that everyone inside is looked at in a negative light. That said, the fact that the company did end up in such bad shape was, to some extent, because of the decisions that were made, so it’s a little chicken-and-egg. But there were some very good people here in finance, and part of my focus has been helping to bring them through and helping to rebuild the team.
So you did not overhaul finance, so to speak?
I brought in some new players, but most of my team is existing GM people, and I’m really happy with them. I do think that helping them simplify the way they communicate has made them better at their jobs. That’s part of my role, and also part of my personal philosophy. I talk a lot about the challenge of moving from data to information to insight: data is just a mess of numbers; information puts data into some useful form, like a graph; and insight involves really understanding information so that it can help you make a decision. Most finance functions get caught somewhere near the data end. They’re scorekeepers; they’re putting numbers together without necessarily converting that into information, and they often lack the time to really think about insight. The urgent tends to crowd out the important.
How do you foster that kind of cultural shift?
One of the first things I did was to change the way we communicate with the board, by taking the old board book and converting it into something [more streamlined]. Similarly, we made the information we communicate externally much more digestible and comprehensible to outside investors. You sort of role-model a behavior and people start to [realize] that if it’s acceptable for outside investors and gets very positive feedback, they can take the same approach themselves. I also work with people individually — when they bring me presentations that don’t work, because they’re too lost in the weeds, I coach them on how to present it in a form that will be much more useful.