Susan Docherty Livechat: Dealers, Catchphrases and Leadership, Oh My!
Sure, GM Sales and Marketing maven Susan Docherty is better at the webchat format than CEO Ed Whitacre (not to mention Mark “HOT DESIGN” Reuss). Docherty’s emoticon-free performance certainly beat Whitacre’s for sheer volume, but even when she’s talking a lot, Docherty isn’t really saying much of anything. Since GM is generally operating under radio though, today’s webchat is about all we have to go on for a taste of life in the RenCen as a turbulent year sweeps to an equally turbulent close. So let’s dig in, shall we?
The first indication of life under Ed Whitacre came when Docherty was asked:
The question I have is common for all US businesses, how are you at GM dealing with the not invented here mentality. For example, if someone can build a battery that is better than what you have why is it so impossible to get to the right people? It stifles innovation. The fact is that outside of safety and a few gadgets we are all still driving the same car we drove thirty years ago
To which Docherty replied:
in the new GM we are encouraging our team members to make sure their voice is heard. Ed Whitacre has been very clear that our leadership team is ready to listen to all ideas that can make our cars better and our customers satisfied. There is no shortage of good ideas and as leaders we need to hear them!
Listening? From the company that bases its marketing decisions on the assumption that the only thing wrong with its vehicles is the fact that consumers are too dumb to understand how good they are? That certainly makes for a change… at least it would it were clear that “listening” wasn’t just another catchphrase on “Whitacre-apporved” list. Sadly, that seems to be exactly the case. Docherty explains:
I think our recent announcements are a great example of placing emphasis on younger talent – these moves create lots of new opportunities for our GM Team members and more to come …… Our Leaders have established a new process for establishing objectives to ensure that our team members are empowered to make changes, take on more responsiblity and be held accountable for results – this is what our new “CAP” – Committment, Accountability, Partnership is all about.
Quick question: does it seem to anyone else that this new “CAP” phenomenon could be substituted with the 1988 catchphrase “Teamwork and Technology?” And though “Accountability” is clearly supposed to rank high in this “new” order, Docherty made it clear that GM’s strategy largely boils down to lots of listening. From the death of the Vui-ick, to picking colors for the new Buick Regal, to soliciting specific marketing suggestions, Docherty could not stop talking about how GM management is essentially handing over decision-making to customers, lower-ranking employees, and basically everyone but the folks who are supposed to be “in charge” and “accountable.” Nothing seems to capture this re-framing of decision-making within the company than the following exchange about dealers, kicked off with this question/blame shift from Claude Chisholm:
In my opinion, your dealer network bears more responsibility for GM’s decline over the last 30 years than your product line. Excellent dealers can build a loyal base of repeat customers who will come back, even if the product may be a bit less than topnotch. While on the other hand, bad dealers can sour people on even the best products. Somehow you have to impress upon your dealers that consumer satisfaction is more important than seeing customers as more than mere money machines of whom they can take advantage of.
To which Docherty replied:
Claude, thanks for being so candid. Dealers are our partners and the face to the consumer and you are right that if a consumer has a bad experience it reflects poorly on our brands and our company. We have some great dealers and we also have some NOT SO GREAT dealers. It is the responsibility of my team to address the not so good dealers and either help improve their performance or the market will decide for them. Consumers perceptions are exceptionally important – we are taking this seriously and need to improve in this area.
Nobody’s going to deny that there are GM dealers who reflect poorly on the company, but GM also just had the perfect opportunity to dump every last one of these in its bankruptcy. If the problem persists, well, GM has only itself to blame. Except, as a “different” kind of GM leader, Docherty doesn’t play that game. But how is Docherty different than her predecessors Mark LaNeve and Bob Lutz?
My leadership style is transparant, inclusive and with a bias towards listening and moving fast. In my new role I plan to be spending even more time with customers and dealers because this is where I can make the biggest impact, help strenghten our brands, and earn consideration in the hearts and minds of consumers. Also want to spend time with leaders outside of our industry – there’s so much to learn!
Remember, the question was “how is your leadership style different than LaNeve and Lutz?” By blithely describing her abilities as a listener, Docherty indicates that the “perception gap” rhetoric from her predecessors will be a thing of the past. That sounds like a good thing. The mania for consumer insight is a dangerous tonic though, as it can be just as distracting as the more recent product-first approach (as GM’s Zarella-era product proved). And if Docherty’s clueless response to the Volt video making the rounds on the autoblogosphere is anything to go off of, her lack of confidence and control is as big a danger as Lutz and LaNeve’s imperiousness. Unless it isn’t. Let me check with some consumers.
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