By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. Is it really that hard to run a car company? Yes, yes, it is. It’s a knock-down, drag-out, pride-swallowing siege that will consume every inch of your being if you allow it to. But let’s face it, some people are more adept at it than others. Some people are just plain gifted when it comes to leading people and focusing organizations, and others, well, others are outmatched the moment they throw their legs over the side of the bed to get up in the morning.
You’d think there would be a CEO finishing school of some kind, but no, people ascend to the title in all kinds of interesting ways. There are the dutiful soldiers who, after 40 years of saying, “thank you, sir, may I have another” and having taken every shitty assignment dumped on them with a smile, finally get “the call” and get to be CEO for a couple of years before they ride off into the sunset muttering to themselves, “Wow, did that just happen?”
Then there are the mercurial plotters and schemers, the ones who have wanted to be CEOs since they were in high school. Every move they have made to get to the top was a series of calculations and risks. Yes, there may have been setbacks along the way, but by the time these movers ascend to the throne they’re smugly saying, “I was born to do this.”
Then there are the corporate carpetbaggers whose mercenary zeal is only eclipsed by their massive, out-of-control egos. They may have not been born to do it, but they will seize every opportunity thrust upon them if it serves their purpose. And what is that purpose, exactly? To accumulate as much power and riches as they can in as short a time as possible. That the whole “what would be best for the company?” discussion gets lost in the shuffle is just so much collateral damage that they can’t be bothered with.
Today’s automotive landscape features a kaleidoscope of CEOs and CEOs-in-waiting of varying types, from the sublimely competent to the maliciously incompetent, and everything in-between. If you’ve read my columns long enough you can probably discern the good from the bad, and the exceptional from the marginal.
And there are some whom I haven’t written about, at least not yet anyway, who will soon have their turn in the barrel. These are from the Peter Sellers as Chauncey Gardener Being There CEO school. They’re there, but not really there. They speak, but remarkably enough, say nothing. And they wake up praying every day that they don’t get found out. But I digress.
I often get asked, “What would you do if you were CEO of a car company?” And I always say, “Which one?” Because every car company is different and presents a different set of challenges and opportunities, at least that’s the politically correct answer. But really? When would I care about being PC? I don’t exactly find it to be a value-added activity, so…
First off, as I used to tell the creative groups that worked for me, I don’t have a compelling need to be liked. That means on any given day half the people working for me will hate my guts, and the other half will be ambivalent. There may be a few who actually like me, or the way I do things, but hey, it’s a tough, cold-hearted world out there and I’m not going to wander around the office polling your feelings, just to be clear.
Having said that, however, it does change things. And in a hurry too. People don’t know how to react to that, because it’s disorienting and uncomfortable, especially for people who have made a career out of sucking up.
As you might imagine, I’m not much for the touchy-feely hand-holding crap that passes for working in corporate America these days. I find it to be counterproductive and debilitating. In my car company I would value talent and relentless dedication to doing the best and being the best. Everything else is a waste of time. As for hugging it out and avoiding hurting someone’s feelings? That is a fool’s errand. I might happen to loathe everything about you but if you’re good at what you do you’d have a role and it's all good. If you’re not, I’m sure there are other options for you somewhere else and good luck, by the way.
If I inherit a “silo” problem, and let’s be clear here, every single corporate entity in this country – automotive or otherwise – is siloed to the hilt, I would dedicate a day to it. Just one day. I would round up my top 40 managers - or as many as I can get in one luxury motor coach - and take a tour of some of this state’s beautiful farm country. On our journey I would point out the various silos, the different shapes and styles, and the fact that few are alike from one farm to the next, etc., etc.
And at the end of that idyllic, four-hour tour, I would have a lavish table set up in an open field, so we could all sit down to lunch. And just when everyone is comfortable and thinking, “I’m gonna like this guy, he’s nothing like I thought he’d be,” I’d clink my glass a few times, get up, and reprise Robert De Niro’s speech – as Al Capone in The Untouchables – about teamwork and loyalty, complete with baseball bat. No, I wouldn’t crack someone’s skull for emphasis, but I might take a good whack at some dinnerware. I think they’d all get the message.
Okay, maybe a bit over the top, but working together and pulling in the same direction would not be an issue from then on, I’m quite sure.
As CEO, I’m certain I could make a difference for some of the companies out there. Let’s take GM, for instance. I’d take that ridiculous RenCen – by far the dumbest, most unwieldy headquarters building in corporate America – and I’d sell it to Dan Gilbert. He’s buying up everything in downtown Detroit as it is, and he would be happy to turn it into GilbertWorld, or some such nonsense, and fill it with people selling air. It would be perfect.
Then, I would move GM headquarters to Austin, Texas, a place where no one really cares about the automobile industry, and where the auto biz rarely even merits a mention in the business section of the Austin American Statesman.
If Toyota can move its U.S. operations out of southern California to the Dallas area, GM could stand to have a change of scenery as well. It would be good to be in a market where 90 percent of the vehicles sold consist of retail purchases made by real people, instead of the complete opposite that goes on back here in Detroit, where at least 75 percent of the vehicles purchased come with some kind of manufacturer-related deal. I bet it would open some eyes and alter some perspectives in a hurry. And since GM makes all of its money selling trucks, SUVs and crossovers, I couldn’t imagine a better environment than Texas to gain a little perspective.
There are plenty of other car companies out there in desperate need of fresh CEO-think, but they’re already lathered-up and lawyered-up, and immersed in the day-to-day realities as they see them. That they can’t pick their heads up once in a while to become more aware of their surroundings seems to be an occupational hazard, one that’s repeated far too often in this business.
Inevitably that leads to car companies – and car company CEOs – developing a warped sense of reality, one that has them growing accustomed to the dulcet tones of their own voices and believing their press clippings, and actually beginning to think that they really have it goin’ on, which is, unremarkably enough, when things really start to go haywire.
That’s just a wonderful slice of reality that never seems to get old in this business. There’s always some CEO out there somewhere who believes the planets really do revolve around them.
Come to think of it, maybe the Being There CEO school is the way to go.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.