by Matt Villano

At GM, Szygenda Recruits the Right Followers

Jun 01, 20013 mins
IT Leadership

Ralph Szygenda, group vice president of information systems and services and CIO at General Motors, does not suffer fools or tolerate excuses. One GM insider describes Szygenda’s voice as having a decibel level 50 times higher than anyone else he knows in business. Another longtime colleague says, “Ralph is demanding, tough and at times totally frustrating.” But he adds, “Man oh man, does he get things done.”

A self-proclaimed general, Szygenda (pronounced zhe-gen-da) does not quibble with this assessment. Yet he considers himself a people person who puts recruitment above all else. A leadership paradox? “Most people in IT have a hard time with leadership because they want to jump in and do stuff,” he says. “If you ask me, technology is secondary to finding good people. One good person is worth 30 bad ones. If you get the right people, you can accomplish anything.”

When Szygenda joined GM as CIO in 1996 under a mandate to take over the company’s global IT systems from outsourcer Electronic Data Systems, one of his first acts was to determine what type of lieutenants he would need to change IT from a loosely connected group of highly autonomous divisions into a cohesive department with integrated systems. He then spent the next six months interviewing candidates for these jobs, holding face-to-face meetings with more than 280 people in hotels and restaurants all over the world. He whittled this pool down to a handful of all-stars, hiring 30 of them for jobs in his new regime. Today, these are the company’s process information officers and CIOs overseeing functions such as manufacturing, procurement, order fulfillment and other business units.

This reliance on an elite team of loyalists is Szygenda’s regimen for successful leadership. With this decentralized superstructure in place, Szygenda has been able to cut GM’s 7,000 information systems in half, reduce auto production time by nearly 30 months and build a Web presence that makes GM the most successful online seller in the auto business, according to market research company Gomez. In 1997 Szygenda launched a consumer website, (for which GM won an honorable mention in the CIO Enterprise Value Awards judging), followed by a business-to-business website,, last year. Earlier this year he put the finishing touches on Covisint, a B2B procurement exchange.

While GM’s IT transformation hasn’t been without resistance or controversy, Szygenda pulled it off with toughness and unwavering dedication to his plan. On the few occasions when other executives questioned his judgment, he did his best George W., stumping and selling colleagues on the issues at hand.

Colleagues admire Szygenda’s commitment to integrating business with technology, says Cherri Musser, the CIO he hired to run eGM, the company’s new e-business division. “Sure, he can be tough, but Ralph’s gift is stating technology in ways that businesspeople can understand. This is a quality most CIOs lack. It’s one that makes Ralph special.”