Was Susan Docherty "Publicly Humiliated" Because She's A Woman?

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer
was susan docherty publicly humiliated because she s a woman

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.

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  • Accs Accs on May 12, 2010

    Hmmm... Susan Docherty hasn't been in any place long enough to actually incorporate change. She was at GMC for a bit.. to push their replacement for the Envoy / with twins being the Equinox and SRX. And now she is the mouth of GM?! Heck, I'd like it personally EXPLAINED to me... what makes HER able to support G . M as the Veep Of Marketing? Where exactly does that fit in.. in the short term work she has done? She is as I believe much like Jill (in charge of Saturn, till that boat sank.) I don't think she or they have much power to do anything. Heck, Id like to know what exactly did she get done as part of that boat? What things did she push? In some tiny regard . . . I think she is like Bryan Nesbitt, in that he does a fine job as a designer. (Even though nothing lately has his mark.) But to transfer him as a leader of CADDY.. totally out of the designer position.. is stupid. Maybe Docherty needs a little "brand" to go nurture, with her 40yr old outfits and fits of passion and excitement with thick sweaters and dreams of opulence in badge engineered domestic garbage. Mind you.. I have nothing against her . . Just the ball game she participates in, and the lousy job she is managing to do. As for being publicly humiliated.. I think Mr Toyoda was recently butchered on Live TV as was all 3 heads of the domestic automakers.. when they announced they asked for money. But she hasnt been in any 1 position long enough to evoke change. Just like any of GM's marketing efforts, styling issues, rebate and or discount cost structure... its all muddled. In the end, I think both Jill and Susan were manipulated in their roles.. because their sex was more important as a high ranking official (place holder) than anything other. (Just like the interior design of the Solstice or Sky was touted as being designed by a woman. Doesn't actually matters who designed it, if the vehicle doesn't sell. Ya'd also have to be an idiot, to see 2 compact cars, built on the same frame, sold as a competing vehicle, in the same parent company, manufactured in the same plant.. just doesn't work! If that were Toyota (in this response only).. they'd make something else off of it -- jus sayin.)

  • Revver Revver on May 12, 2010

    Lemme get this straight. Perhaps the greatest brand on the planet has been systematically fudgepacked by corporate hacks for at least three decades, and as soon as there's a woman anywhere near the top, there's cries of "don't send in a woman to do a man's job." Just exactly who HAS done a good job at GM? And, I can tell you with utmost certainty, ALL advertising at GM has sucked big time forever. GM desperately needs younger and certainly female leadership to change its tired (as psarhjinian put it "white") old image and product development efforts.

  • Tassos And all 3 were ordered by Fisker's mother. Seriously, given Fisker's terrible record of Failure in the past, only an utter loser, (for example, VGhost or Art Vandelay?), looking for a BEV terrible enough to be a proper replacement of his 11 mile range Fiat 500E, would order one of these. (apart from Fisker's mother)
  • Tassos And all 3 of them were ordered by Fisker's mother.Seriously, after Fisker's DISMAL record of UTTER FAILURE in the past, only a GOD DAMNED MORON would order this one.
  • RHD Any truth to the unconfirmed rumor that the new, larger model will be called the bZ6X? We could surmise that with a generous back seat it certainly should be!
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  • GregLocock Two adjacent states in Australia have different attitudes to roadworthy inspections. In NSW they are annual. In Victoria they only occur at change of ownership. As you'd expect this leads to many people in Vic keeping their old car.So if the worrywarts are correct Victoria's roads would be full of beaten up cars and so have a high accident rate compared with NSW. Oh well, the stats don't agree.https://www.lhd.com.au/lhd-insights/australian-road-death-statistics/