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Auto Industry Still Driving Best and the Brightest Women Out

May 10, 2010

The auto industry has always been a very unwelcoming environment for women -- from the plant floors to the executive suites.  Even today, when women make most of the new-car buying decisions, not much has changed.   The most recent example is the stunning rise and fall of GM executive Susan Docherty.  Just a few months ago, the company was showcasing her as the first woman to be named head of U.S. Sales and the only woman on its powerful 10-member leadership team.  Today, she's damaged goods.  The Detroit Free Press asked me to write a commentary on the trend behind the headlines as another woman executive bites the dust in the auto industry.  Here's the piece I wrote for the Detroit Free Press:  


It took Susan Docherty 24 years of blistering hard work to build an impressive career in one of the toughest leadership laboratories for women:  the global auto industry.  It took GM Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre only six months to nearly destroy it.   

One of the industry’s highest profile women executives has been publicly humiliated before our eyes.  Is Susan Docherty just collateral damage in the competitive wars playing out in GM’s executive suites?    Or is this really more evidence of the toxic culture that awaits women who dare venture into the auto industry’s leadership ranks? Consider the facts.  

Rising Star Treated Unfairly   
Last December Docherty’s star was rising.  Her promotion to vice presidnet of U.S. sales marked the first time in GM's 101-year history that a woman held that key position.  It was even bigger news when, following Bob Lutz's retirement, Whitacre combined U.S. sales, service and marketing into one gigantic job and named Docherty its new leader.  The New York Times profiled her leadership style.  GM touted her ascent as evidence of the culture change underway on Whitacre’s watch. 

Less than three months after Docherty was put into the driver’s seat of a complex sales operation in crisis, Mark Reuss, president of GM North America, took half of her job away, naming Steve Carlisle VP of U.S. Sales.  “We need change agents,” was Reuss’ explanation. 

Clearly Susan wasn’t one of “his guys.” 

Then, on May 5, she was publicly benched when GM hired Joel Ewanick from Nissan, naming him VP of U.S. Marketing. Docherty’s new position, according to the press release, would “be announced soon.”  That’s code for having a bulls-eye on your forehead.

Insiders are saying Docherty is being blamed for GM’s disingenuous ads touting repayment of their federal loans.  Really?  Even if it was her idea, lawyers, ad execs, communications and governmental affairs staff and Whitacre himself signed off on every word he uttered on national TV.  

 “My jaw dropped to the floor when I saw the way they have publicly crucified her,” one former GM executive told me. 

You might be thinking, “So what?” Dozens of executives have been broomed in GM’s long overdue housecleaning. But how many were publicly humiliated?   CEOs Rick Wagoner and Fritz Henderson presided over nearly a decade of precipitous decline, yet, even after their firing their colleagues praised their leadership and vision. Why is Susan being handled so differently? 

Women Still Rare at the Top  In 2006, I wrote a piece for Automotive News documenting the hemorrhaging of senior GM, Ford and Chrysler women who were leaving for executive positions in other industries.  Since then I’ve been working on a book, Powering Up: An American Woman’s Guide to Leading, which has immersed me in the latest research and front line experience of women leaders. 

What have I learned?  Women are still so rare at the top, particularly in the auto industry, that they are essentially on their own.  Never “one of the guys”.  No female peers around to provide powerful allies and strategic confidants when the going gets rough, which it always does.

Docherty wasn’t wrong for the job.  The problem was she was a lone woman leading a crucial operating area in the testosterone saturated, white, American male culture that is the “new GM”. Women, harken!  GM is sending a powerful signal to us as leaders, stockholders and new vehicles buyers that its only interest in us is in our purse. 

The auto industry restructuring has hit women particularly hard – can you name the very few women leaders at Ford, Chrysler or suppliers?  But, given the continued growing economic power of women, the company that addresses the work culture issues driving the best and brightest women out of the industry will have a powerful competitive advantage.


June 28th Update:   After a few humiliating weeks in limbo, Docherty was given her next executive assignment:  GM sent her to China.  The fact that she was named GM"s International Operations vice president of sales, marketing and after sales is a testament to her credentials and leadership skills.  The fact that GM had to send Docherty and her family halfway around the world -- to Shanghai --is evidence of how badly they undermined her power and effectiveness in North America. 

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