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Crisis greets new CEO with a fistful of issues


– Few chief executive officers would want Mary Barra’s job right now. The company she leads, General Motors, is just five years out from bankruptcy and a government bailout. It is recalling 1.6 million vehicles to fix a faulty ignition switch, a problem the company now says it has known about for more than 10 years. Lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have announced plans for hearings. There are reports of a probe by the Justice Department, too.

And she reportedly first learned of the problem after being on the job just a few weeks.

Other CEOs have faced monumental crises this early in their tenure. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks happened just four days after Jeffrey Immelt took over as CEO of General Electric. Within two months of Steven Newman becoming CEO of Transocean, its Deepwater Horizon oil well exploded, creating a massive spill.

Still, few CEOs have faced such major internally induced crises as the one Barra confronts at GM.

As a result, it’s easy to see nothing but the massive challenges she faces. On top of managing the recall and the investigations – Barra has said she’s personally directing the recall effort – there is still the not-so-simple matter of continuing to revamp GM’s bureaucratic culture and building on the company’s rebound.

In addition, no new CEO is practiced in the art of being the external face of the company to investors, the media or congressional committees. And then there’s the tricky tightrope she’ll need to walk between distancing herself from the past and looking like she’s making excuses.

But for all those thorny challenges, she may have certain things working in her favor. Barra – or any other CEO facing a crisis this early in his or her tenure – is likely to be showered with resources and advice from GM’s board. Board members don’t want the CEO they just put their stamp of approval on to fail.