Former Ford exec Ann Doyle sure seems to think so, penning an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press titled Another female auto executive bites the dust. Her thesis?
It took General Motors executive 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.
Given how closely GM has embraced identity politics when it suits its purposes, Doyle’s suggestion is kind of a big deal. But is there anything to it?
Doyle’s problem with Docherty’s treatment is rooted in her relatively meteoric rise and equally rapid fall from grace.
Last December Docherty’s star was rising. Her promotion to VP 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’ 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 Docherty wasn’t one of “his guys.” Then, on May 5th, 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.
Of course this rise and fall pattern is hardly uncommon around GM, where the Peter Principle demands that a steady flow of executives be promoted to their level of incompetence and then fade away equally quickly. Being an auto exec is a tough, competitive job, especially at a time of unprecedented challenge for the industry. And Doyle acknowledges that Docherty is not exactly the only exec to be ushered from the RenCen’s inner sanctums in the last year… but she still thinks Docherty is getting a raw deal.
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 firings their colleagues praised their leadership and vision. Why is Docherty being handled so differently?
Maybe because the Whitacre ad fiasco, which re-opened bloody wounds in GM’s PR image, was not her first cock-up. Docherty was previously excoriated for allowing the “Volt Dance” to make an internet laughing stock of GM, her Fastlane live chat performance left much to be desired, she was unable to face reality in regards to GM’s incentive levels, and her Chevy tagline “Excellence For Everyone” already smells of flop. Docherty humiliated herself for months before anyone in GM stepped up and did her the favor of relieving her of command. Of course, Doyle doesn’t exactly see Docherty’s canning in that positive light.
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.
Actually, Docherty was wrong for the job, and she’d been proving it ever since her promotion. Making her a symbol of working women and the challenges they face is a disservice to those working women, implying that they shouldn’t be evaluated on their performance like anyone else. It’s bad enough that Doyle glosses over Docherty’s incompetence, but doing so in order to say she was fired because of sexism is just pathetic. Perhaps if Ms Doyle read a little more TTAC, she’d know that Docherty is no more a martyr than Fritz Henderson, Mark Laneve, Rick Wagoner, or the other execs who were ousted before her.