By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. With spring almost upon us and the New York Auto Show right around the corner (and the gloom and doom of the European market casting a pall over the Geneva Motor Show as you read this), it’s probably a good time to remind those of you out there who might have forgotten that this business of designing, engineering, building and marketing automobiles is not what it appears to be.
Yes, of course it’s a business, and the companies involved are not doing it for the hell of it. There is real money to be made when things are going well, huge piles of it in fact. And when things go wrong, well, let’s just say it’s not pretty. When things start going bad the careers and lifestyles at stake become intertwined in the wreckage, and it’s then that the true colors of the people involved emerge.
After all, it’s easy to do the right things when it’s all good, right? But it takes real courage to make the tough decisions when things are grim. Because at that point the executives at the upper strata of these companies begin looking at their watches, wondering, “When are we gonna get this thing fixed?” Or more pointedly for the executives directly responsible, “When are you gonna get this thing fixed?”
That’s when it gets down to the nitty-gritty and that’s when the company finds out if you have what it takes. As I said it’s not pretty at times, to put it mildly.
When all is said and done, however, this business is a seething cauldron of lust, desire, doubt, fear, trepidation and exhilaration, all based on what’s going to happen, what just happened and what might happen.
Lust because some involved just can’t get enough, they still get juiced every day being immersed in the business they absolutely love.
Desire to do well still drives most of the people involved up to their eyeballs in the business. I said most. There are still legions of people toiling away who couldn’t care less about the company or about what they do, they just want to make sure they’re covered. More on those in a bit.
Doubt? Oh hell yes. When the pressure is on and you’re making a product decision that affects thousands of people and costs millions upon millions of dollars, you can bet that doubt is hanging around out there on the periphery, just waiting to pounce if you lose your nerve.
Trepidation and exhilaration? The automobile business is one of extreme extremes. It just couldn’t function any other way. The difference between a product hit and a product disaster is so miniscule it can make people quake in their boots. One bad decision can yield to other ones and set the downward spiral into motion for years, and the badness can accelerate from there.
On the other hand, one golden product hit can solidify a career for years to come, and the exhilaration from that kind of high can be so addictive that it fuels that lust and desire all over again.
But remember, too, that the automobile business runs on a severely warped version of time. Vehicles are launching that have been in the hopper for three or four years, so whatever fleeting moment of elation there is going on is shrouded in a dense fog created by the crucial decisions being made that will affect the companies’ futures three or four years down the road.
You can see it in the eyes of the executives at the auto shows. They’re reading from a script at a new product intro and talking about it with the media ad nauseam, but you find them staring off in the distance at times and it’s right then and there that I know they’re thinking about a crucial part of the next version of that Belchfire 8 that they’re sweating over right that very instant.
This business can turn upon any one of those aforementioned descriptors in a blink of an eye, sometimes even on the same day or even in the same hour for that matter, depending on the circumstances.
In order to succeed in this business, you must assess the window of opportunity open to you and assume what path would be the one best taken, based on your skill set and what you bring to the table and last but not least, your unbridled ambition.
But that’s only the beginning.
From there the business consumes you and everything you have to give for damn near every waking hour. Remember we’re talking about succeeding here, not just going through the motions. And being consumed with what you do is not an uncommon theme at all in the automobile business.
Success in this business requires a relentless will and an unwavering commitment to excellence, because anything less could mean 25 years of just keeping your head above water, or worse, a career mired in mind-numbing mediocrity. For life.
Is it any wonder then that for many succeeding becomes an obsession?
I’ve seen all kinds in this business. The Visionary Leaders. The Deep Thinkers. The Blue-Sky Dreamers. The Small-Minded Pinheads. The Dilettantes, Wannabes and the Pretenders. The Spineless Weasels. The Maliciously Incompetent. The Cover-Your-Ass All-Stars. The Straight Shooters. The Dead. Solid. Perfect. And of course, the True Believers.
This volatile mix of people runs rampant throughout every car company. And it’s this mix – and how these factions mesh or clash in the pursuit of bringing out products – that ultimately determines the success or failure of a company.
You might think that the breakdown of that mix above wouldn’t be fully subscribed at the top layers of these companies, but you would be wrong. It’s exactly at the upper echelons of these companies where that mix is its most volatile.
Companies firing on all cylinders have a fruitful mix of Visionary Leaders, Deep Thinkers, Blue-Sky Dreamers and, of course, the True Believers, all bolstered by The Straight Shooters and the Dead. Solid. Perfect.
These key players are consumed with making the products the very best that they can possibly be, and executing the details to perfection is not a chore for them, but a happy obsession. It’s just The Way It Is Done. Focused, assured and relentless, these players are the engines of a successful automobile company.
Conversely, the companies only intermittently firing on all cylinders are held back by a cadre of Small-Minded Pinheads, Dilettantes, Wannabes and Pretenders. Plus, The Spineless Weasels and The Maliciously Incompetent. And last but not least, The Cover-Your-Ass All-Stars.
I’ve seen every one of these bad characters live and in color in the vast gray middle of these companies, and inevitably this badness originates with people who wake up every day with two questions on their minds: 1. How can I make my boss look good today? and 2. How can I cover my ass in the process of doing so?
To say that it’s ugly doesn’t even begin to cover it. These Small-Minded Pinheads will pursue that train of logic even if it means not doing the right thing for the company. It’s easy to say that the vast gray middle of these companies harbors the majority of these offenders, because when you have these kinds of players at “work” you can see where product programs can get lost in the quagmire of warring fiefdoms and all of the chaos that comes with that reality.
But that wouldn’t be truly accurate.
Because the most devastating hit to these companies can come from the Spineless Weasels, Small-Minded Pinheads and the Maliciously Incompetent at the director level or even above. When these people are allowed to fester and thrive in their little fiefdoms, it goes all wrong, and in a big way.
This is the real ongoing war inside these car companies, and it’s a battle that plays out every day.
It’s the Visionary Leaders and Blue-Sky Dreamers vs. The Maliciously Incompetent and The Cover-Your-Ass All-Stars.
And it’s the True Believers, Deep Thinkers and Blue-Sky Dreamers vs. the Small-Minded Pinheads and Spineless Weasels.
You thought it was about just finding the right vehicle that fits your needs, didn’t you?
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.