By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Hard after my last column, “The Commoditization of Everything,” this week I thought it would be appropriate to delve into the absolute essentials of a typical auto CEO’s Survival Kit, especially with the swirling maelstrom of chaos ramping up in the business at a prodigious rate. Wait, what? What about those glorious sales numbers and the “happy days are here again” vibe being piped throughout the Motor City?
In answer to that there’s always something stirring the pot. This week and for the foreseeable future there’s uh, you know, China. And the steadily decreasing profit margins. And China. And pressing global financial issues. And well, China. And the obligatory, piss-poor, relentlessly underperforming regional markets. Not to mention the upcoming labor talks. And did I mention China?
Yes, of course I realize that none of the CEOs out there are typical, or average, or anything of the sort. They’re all brilliant tacticians and gifted visionaries with a level of ability not found in mere mortals. As if any of that were true. Oh sure, some out there are pretty close to being, well, decent, if not excellent, but there are enough poseurs and stumblebums masquerading as CEOs at the auto manufacturers and in the supplier community to give me something to write about for the next half a decade at least.
At any rate, let’s get on with it, shall we? Let’s imagine a faceless and feckless black-suited aide – let’s call him, Chad – who carries with him a small black duffel bag filled with the essentials of CEO survival. And he’s never more than ten feet away from his CEO at any point in time, because, as Dr. Bud likes to say, “You just never know.”
The Secret “Ego Stroker” Phone List. Let’s face it, on any given day a CEO’s cocky swagger might be derailed by the slightest of slights, a sideways glance cast just so, a bad interview, a hostile editorial, a sullen group executive who has it out for him/her and has the troop support to back it up, a surly board member stirring up shit for shit’s sake, or an asshole neighbor that pisses said CEO off just by breathing. For that you need props from assorted hangers-on and/or longtime cronies, or for instance a long-winded conversation with an old college professor, or a session with a card-carrying, bootlicking member of the press who is bound to shower said CEO with vacuous praise, no matter what the occasion. This list - which is absolutely overflowing with people offering gushing, positive reinforcement and overinflated ego stroking is contained in a secret – that means corporate security is unaware of its existence - phone that Chad drags out for the appropriate occasion. And depending on the severity of the ego crisis, he helps determine who would be most helpful to summon from the list for the given occasion.
The Stuart Smalley Autograph Edition Talking Magic Mirror. Sometimes mindless platitudes from PR minions – big and small – even though always welcome, just aren’t enough. When that’s the case, the Stuart Smalley Autographed Edition Talking Magic Mirror can do wonders. The mirror comes complete with audio reinforcement that can be custom-tailored to each CEO*, but it comes pre-downloaded with the following mantra: I deserve good things. I am entitled to my share of happiness. I refuse to beat myself up. I am an attractive person. I am fun to be with. *As you might imagine, Sergio’s magic mirror might sound something like this: I am the smartest guy in the room, any room. Just ask me. On Tuesdays between 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. I am actually likable. I am entitled to rule the automotive world by manipulating other people’s money. Because I can. And if I keep pestering Mary often enough, she’ll cave.
The “I Know What Good Design Looks Like” Consultation Phone. This is a direct connection to The Pen Droppers, a secret society of decorated former designers who can be secretly summoned into the bowels of a design studio du jour to set a CEO straight about what he/she is looking at and why it sucks, or why it doesn’t. These jittery calls usually come late at night before a major design review when no one’s around. The danger? When CEOs get cocky and actually start thinking they don’t need the help anymore, adopting that glazed, “I Know What Good Design Looks Like“ stare in their eyes, which inevitably leads to a giant bowl of Not Good and comments such as, WTF is that? at design reviews.
Annoying Journalist Repellant. This, of course, is self-explanatory. CEOs tolerate journalists, but just barely. For the most part CEOs find them to be tedious, duplicitous, snarky and collectively, “not our kind of people.” But they do tolerate them, especially the ones who offer up cloying platitudes at the drop of a hat to gain access (oh yes, you know who you are), or who follow the dictates laid down by the Chief PR Minion to the letter. Those types are immediately dubbed “good” journalists and are given unrivaled access, rides on the company plane for even more access, etc., etc. They are much liked and essential to a CEO’s mental health, even though the mutual “like” is all a fatuous display.
But then there’s always the odd rogue journalist, who is inevitably a card-carrying member of the dangerous Carpal-Tunnel Black Hats, the secret journalistic society that prides themselves on having impeccable – and talkative - sources and deep, uncannily accurate insights that leave executives suddenly awash in a ghostly pallor at the mere sight of them. As CEOs over the years have found out, these “Black Hats” are the most dangerous and lethal agents in the business, because they not only expose the ugly realities, they expose the limited talents of marginal CEOs who shouldn’t even be there in the first place.
Oh, and about that “Annoying Journalistic Repellant.” It comes in a spray can with all kinds of ominous looking markings on it. But unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at things) – and unbeknownst to the CEOs, of course - it doesn’t really work, however designated “Chads” around the world use it to calm their bosses down when all else fails. It smells like cherry blossoms with a hint of jasmine mixed in, if you must know.
Bat-shit Neutralizer. And last, but not least, when CEOs become so consumed with rage (usually at a member of the “Black Hats” or a contrarian board member) and get caught up in entertaining actual ways to dispatch said enemies, “Chads” around the automotive world wait for the right moment – usually after said CEO returns to his office and before the next line on the day’s agenda begins – amd calmly remove a simple metallic-looking canister from the black bag, and spray a giant cloud that harmlessly envelops the CEO in a fog of tranquility. And for 30 beatific seconds, the CEO is taken back to whatever point in his or her childhood when life was good, unburdened of responsibilities, languishing under cobalt blue skies and immersed in the smell of a calming sea breeze. I guess it beats a 2x4 to the forehead for “clarity” anyway.
So the next time you see a CEO walking through an auto show, look for the designated “Chad” – or Carly as the case may be - hovering about toting an unmarked black bag. And smile.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.