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William C. Taylor
Author/Entrepreneur

William C. Taylor

Founding editor of Fast Company and co-author of Mavericks at Work, William C. Taylor is working on his next book, Practically Radical. Follow him on Twitter @practicallyrad

Less Head, More Heart

As a leader, how you make an argument can be as important as the argument itself. I'll leave it to others to critique the economic arguments the Big Three CEOs made to Congress in defense of an auto-industry bailout package--the "rational" component of leadership. What mystifies me is why the presence of the CEOs so lacked any sort of emotional component.

In times of turmoil and uncertainty, in an environment where anyone who claims definitive knowledge about anything is suspect, people don't just respond to costs and benefits, investments and returns. Rather, they support causes they believe in, leaders whom they respect, arguments that appeal to their hearts as well as their heads. By-the-numbers CEOs often have little patience for such "emotional intelligence"--which is why they have such trouble inspiring their own employees, let alone members of Congress who have difficult decisions to make.

So what else could the auto executives have done? Above all, they could have designed a format for their Congressional testimony that did not make them "the face of the auto industry."

People support leaders to whom they have an emotional connection. Even if they came to Washington with the best-crunched numbers the financial world has ever seen (and they didn't), why would the CEOs of the Big Three have expected Congress and the country to rally around them?

Help Bob Nardelli? Wasn't he the guy who lost the race to succeed Jack Welch at GE, paid himself hundreds of millions of dollars at Home Depot, got run out of town, and then signed on with a hedge fund to run Chrysler? Help Alan Mulally? He seems to be doing an okay job at Ford, but didn't he spend much of his career at Boeing? Help Rick Wagoner? He's a GM lifer who's been in the senior executive ranks for 16 years. Either he hasn't been trying very hard to change GM, or he's not very good at it.

Here's what I would have done, working with sympathetic members of Congress. I would have figured out what elements of the auto business people respond most positively to, and made those elements the "face of the industry" in Washington. For example, Americans don't much like car executives these days, but we still love our cars. What are the cars of which Detroit is most proud, about which the industry is most excited, and why weren't those cars on display in the halls of Congress? Pictures of sleek, fuel-efficient, well-designed cars send a much more inspiring message than pictures of a middle-aged white guy with reading glasses perched on his nose.

In the same way that politicians love to give speeches surrounded by soldiers or firefighters or cops, I would have made sure that the CEO testimony was delivered against a backdrop of the best products that Detroit has to offer--let the cars speak as loudly as the suits.

Car dealers also have a special place in American folklore--not to mention in local economies across the country. Sure, we've all tangled with a fast-talking car salesman at some point. But every city in America has a handful of dealers who are larger-than-life figures, by virtue of decades' worth of humorous advertising, visibility at community events, charitable giving at holiday times. These are the kinds of leaders that rank-and-file Americans respond to--leaders who, by their nature, are persuasive, likeable, charming. If I were one of those CEOs, I would have made sure there was a top-dog car dealer from every state at those hearings. I would have introduced them, deferred to them, made sure they got airtime.

Finally, where were the engineers? Anyone who has spent any time in Detroit knows that it is a place teeming with smart technical people who have gasoline in their veins, people who have devoted their lives to making cars safer, better, higher-performing and more stylish. These engineers--many of whom, over the years, have had to battle top executives to get their innovations approved and installed--are precisely the kinds of unsung heroes that Americans love to celebrate and support.

Whom do you think Congress would find more persuasive about the future of eco-friendly cars: A fat-cat CEO like Bob Nardelli, who parachuted into the business less than 18 months ago, or a gifted engineer who has devoted his or her professional life to the green technology?

My message for the Big Three CEOs going forward: The less we see of you, the more likely we are to support the companies you lead.

By William C. Taylor

 |  December 8, 2008; 8:47 PM ET
Category:  Economic crisis Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Every other rust belt industry has moved to Asia and Europe. Why not car manufacturing? Those who run our biggest corporations learned long ago to hide themselves in their mahogany-paneled offices and to spew venom at "labor." There are some structural impediments to success in Detroit revolving around imprudent promises made to the workin' man back when times were flush. The impulse from on high is to cut the workin' man loose and to continue making products that are measurably inferior in many ways to stuff that comes out of better managed companies with factories here and management in Asia or Europe. Now the pampered top dogs come begging for tax money to help keep their companies going for a few months more so that they can make a bunch more Hummer-sized vehicles that will sit on dealer lots and oxidize. I'm not happy with the prospect of hundreds of thousands of workers losing their jobs because the decision-makers in their companies insisted on doing things as if it is still 1958. But our upper-crusters are a stubborn bunch with an overgrown sense of entitlement. They should be standing in soup lines with those men they formerly supervised. If, as expected, Congress votes to print $15B, I expect it won't be long before that's spent on frippery and the CEOs will be back for more.

Posted by: BlueTwo1 | December 10, 2008 6:39 AM
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For years now the executives of the auto industry have blamed the union benefits for high prices of American autos and lack of competitiveness in the industry. Interestingly though, those same executives have collected multimillion dollar paychecks and who knows what perks such as those wonderful corporate jets. How many corporate CEO's are collection such perks such as funds for "financial planning".
This seems to me some more of the same old management philosophy, "when things are going well take all of the credit and all of the money, when things are going badly blame your employees.
During the first Congressional hearings I kept wondering just what the three CEO's thought they were doing there. They flew down in their corporate jets, made a pitch for what a great product they had and blamed the unions for high prices.
In a business that wants to be competitive management should be conscious a all of the expenses and particularly their own. I wondered why these guys didn't bring something more to the table than "give money" we want it.
Executives should bring the skills of vision and planning as well as people management skills as their tools for doing their jobs. It appears that these CEOs need to brush up on their skills because in this round of negotiations they haven't shown much evidence of the savy necessary to run their companies.

Posted by: Oh My! | December 10, 2008 2:32 AM
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I like the arguement believe that in general the "Big 3" have done a very poor job of representing their case to the American people.

There is a certain arrogance involved in claiming that you deserve tax payer dollars because your company is "too big to fail". This is the message that has been consistently put forth by the banks and now the auto titans. Warning us of the "dire consequences" of a GM bankruptcy and attempting to bully the American people into yet another bail out causes a visceral backlash against those making the arugement. Instead they should have eaten some humble pie and made their case in the most positive light possible.

Posted by: Andrew | December 9, 2008 1:25 PM
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Re: "Help Rick Wagoner? He's a GM lifer who's been in the senior executive ranks for 16 years. Either he hasn't been trying very hard to change GM, or he's not very good at it."

When will someone... anyone... in the media start to focus on the fact that folks, like "Lifer Rick", take excessive compensation out of these large companies when times are good... only to stick it to the employees/shareholders/taxpayers when a downturn occurs?

Compounding this... have you ever tried to communicate with a corporate executive? They communicate only one way... from them to you. They are know-it-alls.

Maybe... just maybe... this isn't your garden-variety recession/depression we are all experiencing. Maybe... just maybe... this is a cataclysmic come uppance for the entire American society for allowing bad management and bad judgment to flourish over decades... not just in corporations, but in all elements of the society... government... universities... even churches, for gosh sake!

Bad leadership can persist for a long, long time... yes, even decades! But sooner or later, things must balance out. We are just at the very beginning of painfully realizing this in our economy.

Will someone... anyone... in the media take the long view on all this?

Anyone?

PLEASE!

Posted by: competent | December 9, 2008 11:07 AM
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Agreed. To save the US Auto Industry:

--Fire Upper Management,
--Give Engineers & Designers a bigger say in what kinds of vehicles are built and sold,
--Get the UAW to accept some concessions the leave them with stable employment, fair wages, and equitable benefits.

...and most importantly:

--Have the Oil industry foot the bill!

Posted by: Rhino40 | December 9, 2008 10:10 AM
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