Opinion: Automotive leadership in a post Covid-19 world – ET Auto


The leader is expected to typically take a step back, a few thousand feet up in the sky and look at the bigger picture.

By Avik Chattopadhyay

In the three decades I have been associated with the automotive industry, one aspect that has always fascinated me is its “Leadership”.By leadership I imply organisational leaders, their operational traits and behavioural patterns and, the nurturing of future leaders. I have had the fortune of working under various types of leaders –the builder, the challenger, the nurturer, the benevolent despot and the insecure. I am not discussing team and functional leaders here as neither the perspectives nor the responsibilities are wide enough.

We are exposed to various theories of leadership. Right from Chanakya’s ten traits of an ideal ruler / leader, Machiavelli’s ‘rule by fear’ in The Prince, Lenin’s ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ to Jim Collin’s ‘level 5 style’ of being humble yet driven.

Globally, the automobile industry is a high profile one. Therefore, its leaders, irrespective of specific calibre, are always in the limelight, whether good or bad. They are a ‘league of Supermen’, conjuring magic, seen on a pedestal and capable of doing almost no wrong. The Indian automotive industry is not too different, in styles and behaviour with a few quirks unique to our culture.

Will this leadership style and behaviour tide through the Covid crisis? No, it cannot. The present styles, traits and patterns are not meant for managing this situation. It is not for the calibre of the leadership but for the inability to manage times never ever imagined or planned for. Disruption begs for disruption.

The post-Covid Indian automotive CEO will distinguish himself/herself in five clear ways~

Even Churchill lost the elections in 1945 after winning the war. A very capable war-time Prime Minister need not be a desirable peace-time one! Most of our present leaders have grown up on winning, ordering, poaching and conquering and not reconstructing, aligning, nurturing and partnering. Different times need different leadership styles.Will organisations change from the present leadership type and style post-Covid?
They must, to sustain and survive.

Less by choice, more by compulsion.

Will the new style be nurtured or acquired? Too early to nurture. Initially it will have to be acquired, either by a change in leadership or by an organisational realignment.

The post-Covid Indian automotive CEO will distinguish himself / herself in five clear ways.

Mind share over market share

This is the first demonstration of the new set of relevant traits. The obsession with market share will give way to mind share. Aspects like delight, loyalty and advocacy will gain prominence over mere numbers. The numbers are the outcome and not the reasons. The reasons have to be focused on and invested in. the results will follow. It may be a good idea to identify leaders outside of the Sales function from Service and Human Resources as they have a very different perspective on business.

It may be a good idea to identify women leaders as they have a far more patient, prudent and participative approach to business than the menfolk do.

Business goals need to be re-defined, re-written and the entire organisation re-aligned to the same. They will be about customer retention and advocacy, employee delight and retention, partner nurturing and social sustainability. Most of today’s leaders are not wired accordingly so new ones will have to be identified and chosen.

There could be a leadership pool, just like the senate or the judges’ collegium that will choose and appoint a leader best suited for the times ahead, on a rotational basis.

Business goals need to be re-defined, re-written and the entire organisation re-aligned to the same.
Business goals need to be re-defined, re-written and the entire organisation re-aligned to the same.

Purpose over products

Business is much beyond the products. The latter are a manifestation of what the business is all about. It is about having a clear purpose, a distinct idea, a promise to the customer, a clear personality and a method of delivering the promise.

The Indian automobile industry is going through one of its worst periods in terms of performance by numbers, but probably one of its best in terms of introspection~

Due to their very function, the typical sales and marketing person cannot take the foot off the pedal and bother with all this. This is the task of a leader who does not carry the baggage of daily targets and weekly promotional ads.

The leader is expected to typically take a step back, a few thousand feet up in the sky and look at the bigger picture. This is what a few of my bosses have laughed away as “gyaan” [theoretical mumbo-jumbo]. Already there is a lot of talk of “greater purpose” going around which is a positive beginning.

Brand guru Wally Olins had said, “Your truth lies within yourself. People from outside can only assist you. Dig it out on your own. And live your own life.”

Candour over bluster

Plain speak from CEOs is a rare occurrence in the automotive industry. There is no space for candidness, transparency and ability to display weaknesses and anxieties. It is mostly about ground shaking statements that will make competition quiver in fear and headquarters gloat in glee. Also, as there is no one who questions the statements after a period of time, water flows on.

The new leader will be more human, after all. He / she will have anxieties, not know answers to all questions, not equate boastfulness with brand loyalty and have a sense of ownership over what is said, hence greater humility and fragility. Also, will stay a bit in the background and bring able team members into the limelight.

Patience over “drive”

The next two years will be a lot about wide scale and deep-down reconstruction. Systems have gone awry, processes have stopped, links in various chains are broken both upstream and downstream, employees are nervous, many have gone back home and customer sentiments are still negative. Each piece of the large jigsaw puzzle has to be repaired, re-calibrated and put back in place. Also, new methods of operation have to be gradually introduced and integrated.

This is different from when things are on a roll and you are atop a horse, with sword glistening, charging ahead. This is not Batman stuff; this is after the Joker has messed up Gotham City and the medics are called in! The leader cannot incessantly drive the team here; he / she has to first re-build the team and instil security at work and peace in mind. Its slow, steady, step by step, almost silent work, similar to what Collins calls the “level 5 leadership”.

Ability to plot patterns, outside the syllabus!

This is the whole of the individual, beyond just a summation of specific traits, abilities, behaviour and skills. This is to do with certain “x” factors, quite beyond the set down roles and responsibilities what one could call ‘outside the syllabus’. It may be to do with inclusiveness, multi-functional empathy, multi-sectoral connect, rallying people together or creating and influencing opinion.

This is the ability to connect the dots and plot patterns that others typically cannot. This is typically not an outcome of training but that of growing-up environment, external influences, unique experiences and the art of closely studying a subject while being detached in terms of biases.

The Indian automobile industry is going through one of its worst periods in terms of performance by numbers, but probably one of its best in terms of introspection, candid evaluation of tomorrow’s needs and recalibration of its “leadership”.

In a commentary on Sun Tsu’s “Art of War”, I had read, “Leadership is a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and discipline. Reliance on intelligence alone results in rebelliousness. Exercise of humaneness alone results in weakness. Fixation on trust results in folly. Dependence on the strength of courage results in violence. Excessive discipline and sternness in command result in cruelty. When one has all five virtues together, each appropriate to its function, then one can be a leader.”

One of my bosses taught me, “What was very good for yesterday is not good enough for tomorrow!”

(The author is co-creator of Expereal India. Also, he is former head of marketing, product planning and PR at Volkswagen India.)

(DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are solely of the author and ETAuto.com does not necessarily subscribe to it. ETAuto.com shall not be responsible for any damage caused to any person/organisation directly or indirectly.)

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