You know, I just can’t help feeling outrage, depression, and cynicism at the Big Three auto companies asking for a taxpayer bailout. Twenty years ago, we read cases in business school about how American auto manufacturers had already fallen behind foreign imports in production capability, cost structure, and market responsiveness. At the time, this was not new information.

And now, the Detroit top brass are showing up to Congress, hats in hand, for mega-billion-dollar cash flow loans that they project will last them … oh, a few months. And they’ll do what, exactly, in those few months? Why in the world should we believe that the same people who willfully ignored their competitive situation for two generations have any relevant skills, abilities or motivation to fix any of the problems? Aren’t they exactly the people we know won’t solve the problem?

Yeah, they’re saying they’ll reduce their salary to $1 until the mess is cleaned up. How generous of them. Are they taking huge stock grants instead (Iacocca did, back when he reduced his salary to $1 when saving Chrysler. That part of the story doesn’t sound as noble, so it’s often glossed over)?

Even if they’re genuinely giving up their compensation, they’ve taken home seven- or eight-figure salaries for years. They’re way, way past the point of needing another dime as long as they live. What a sacrifice, to reduce their salaries. I say they’re not going nearly far enough. How about giving back a big chunk of what they’ve been paid over the last twenty years, since it’s now apparent they did a piss-poor job at CEOing.

Startups can’t afford the luxury of incompetent, overpaid CEOs

In the startup world, we don’t have much money to pay CEOs. So we look for CEOs who are passionately committed to the success of our idea, our customers, and our company. We give them stock options, sure, but honestly, that’s not what we count on to motivate them. We count on them loving what they do enough to go the extra mile. And not in a private jet. In fact, founder-CEOs often put in their own money to fund the company and work for free until the company is proven viable.

So here’s my proposal…

I’m happy to have taxpayers bail out Detroit, but with a condition: we auction off the CEO jobs at Ford, Chrysler, and GM. The highest bidder gets the job. They receive a total compensation package equivalent to a shift supervisor at one of their plants. No stock, no options, and no bonuses. If they want better health insurance, for example, they pay for it themselves. Why would anyone take this job? Simple. It’s the chance of a lifetime to do something that almost no one in the world will ever have the chance to do: reshape an industry.

It’s pretty clear to me that the logic of “pay the CEO big money” isn’t getting competent, committed people into the position. It’s getting incompetent leeches whose main interest seems to be in feeling self-important while relieving the company of the burden of millions of dollars of vaule.

By having people ante up real money to take the position, we would quickly narrow the playing field to people who genuinely care, are excited by the opportunity, and who are being driven by the challenge or the love of the industry, not by personal greed. And remember, this isn’t the string bean industry, it’s the auto industry. There are many superbly successful businesspeople in the world who are passionate about cars as an industry. I’ll bet we would be surprised at the number of excellent candidates who stepped forth.

I’ve had enough with this absurd logic that says, “you can’t motivate people unless you pay them.” That’s bull pucky. It may be true for assembly line workers, because those jobs are mind-and-body-numbingly dehumanizing, but when it comes to C-suite jobs, I’ve met hundreds of people in those jobs whose motivations have everything to do with passion, challenge, creating, and doing a job well-done. Most of them are already rich enough that they don’t need to work, anyway.

In fact, even Warren Buffett acknowledges this. He points out that the CEOs of Berkshire Hathaway subsidiaries are extremely successful, already independently-wealthy people. They don’t need money and aren’t motivated by it. That’s why they do such a good job.

The least we can do is take Buffett’s example and get CEOs motivated by passion, superb skill, and challenge to turn around an industry that’s had none of the above for a long time.

A modest proposal for rescuing the auto industry

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