From Car Guy to Mobility Leader

The Future of Automotive Leadership

It’s not easy these days being an automotive executive. More than ever, they must apply multi-phase thinking and take courageous action to adapt a strategy for success in a changing environment—and that’s just the beginning of what is expected of them.

The car market is changing stealthily yet dramatically: transforming itself from the distinct automotive industry to a more fragmented mobility industry. The winners in this process will be the manufacturers, suppliers and traders whose leaders are involved in shaping this change across industries. As a result, the competencies these top managers will need to possess when it comes to expertise, performance and personality have become more complex than ever. The industry no longer can rely solely on the specifically focused car guy of yore. Traditional automotive and technical experts will continue to be essential, but, increasingly, the expertise and knowledge of a true mobility leader must emerge to meet the leadership needs of this evolving industry.

The future of mobility leadership

Love of the automobile and gasoline coursing their veins will always be part of their DNA, but executives and top-tier managers also will need to gather specific skills and experience from other industries such as energy, information and communications, chemicals, logistics and transportation, tourism and finance. True mobility service provider executives will need skills pertaining to goods with a “use by” date—for example, strong knowledge of logistics, travel services or equipment rental will be essential; and having the right financial skills may mean mastering complex booking systems like those created for the aviation industry.

Sagacity, not dogma

New analytical skills and a different approach will be needed to determine which facts are important and which are not. Too often, managers judge data and numbers by their source—the higher the source’s status, the better the information must be. As the auto industry undergoes substantial change, executives need to avoid being guided by past accomplishments and, instead, evaluate data without prejudice when making decisions. Sagacity is what is called for, not dogma. As an example, Google, a company that regularly examines its own performance without bias and develops new business by asking how customers can better achieve their objectives. The automotive industry improves its cars in a similar way, but this competency must be expanded and utilized more extensively to identify and develop new business areas.

It’s not easy being strategic

Executives must be strategists, which sounds easy but isn’t. Strategists are given to autonomous thought, and they express their ideas with passion and conviction—especially when their opinion diverges from popular or mainstream views. A strategist has to be controversial, staying focused on the business issue and never getting personal. A strategist also must be able to build consensus for change and then walk the talk to ensure execution. As an example: If a carmaker wants to copy Zipcar’s metropolitan car-sharing model, internal objections against moving from the automotive business to the mobility business must be overcome. This means—and this is quite possibly the hardest part—being able to realize and appreciate that Generation Y consumers probably are more interested in choosing the right mode of transport at any given time than having the car of their dreams parked in their garage.

Without equal footing, there can be no partnership

There can be no doubt that sound relationship management is more than the ability to accommodate diverging views. Capable networkers exert influence, develop sustainable relationships, and can persuade and convince others to pursue common objectives. These leaders must be able to communicate the need to expand their company beyond its traditional reach and build trust in their vision and judgment in order to execute the strategy.

This becomes dramatically more important when alliances and partnerships gain weight. Today, executives must be able to initiate steps and be willing to show their hand to other companies. To this end, the executive has to have what it takes to correctly judge other companies and individuals. A partnership’s leaders must jointly develop the trust required for each party to open up. Executives will need to operate on an equal footing with external partners. Perhaps one of the most successful recent examples is aviation’s Star Alliance. This association is not aimed at taking over other companies but, instead, brings providers together in a mutually beneficial partnership.

Want to be radical? Show some courage!

If you want to be successful in a sea-change environment, then radical thinking is an indispensable trait. Executives who are willing to question even solidly performing enterprises and then experiment with new approaches will be more successful in unsteady periods.

The capacity to deal with complexity will become increasingly important. Executives will have to pursue numerous tasks simultaneously; they must be able to focus on what is important while still being able to efficiently switch priorities in mid-stream. Multi-phase thinking will be the new catch phrase. Executives will have to think far ahead of the curve when it comes to anticipating events, and those making the big points here will be the ones who are sufficiently self-assured and are able to encourage and promote product diversity. BMW could be on the right course with its new battery-powered two-wheeler, the Mini Scooter E Concept. Targeted for young adults, this scooter is seen as both an alternative to the electric car and a shot in the arm for the ailing motorcycle industry.

When the business world experiences rapid and drastic change, people have to be ready and willing to accept new concepts. Likewise, a leader’s identity needs to be so solidly established that he or she can communicate confidently and candidly across generations and cultures. Executives also must be able to adapt to social and cultural differences. The most successful executives will be those who demonstrate empathy and cultural sensitivity and do so with the right motivation—to drive successful execution of the strategy; executives responding to others’ preferences and expectations simply to gain popularity may not prove tough enough to be an effective leader. At its most elemental, what leaders need to accomplish is listening and responding to others’ personal needs in the interest of the company and then gaining their support for company goals.

Failure can be as valuable as innovation

One quality that often is underrated in the auto industry is risk taking. Risk taking must go hand in hand with the willingness to delegate—not just duties and accountability but also power and decision-making authority. Executives will be more successful when they promote the creativity of others and stop regarding lateral thinkers as troublemakers. These new leaders must encourage their teams to test out new behaviors and innovative approaches. When risks are agreed upon and discussed in advance, there’s no place for penalizing failure. The very impressive yardstick in this respect is Tata Motors: Every year, a prize is awarded by the company for an innovation that seriously was pursued but, alas, failed.


Walter Friederichs, Ph.D. leads the firm’s global Automotive Practice and recruits candidates for top management and board positions in a range of industries at Russell Reynolds Associates.

Leadership for a Changing World. In today’s global business environment, success is driven by the talent, vision and leadership capabilities of senior executives. Russell Reynolds Associates is a leading global executive search and assessment firm with more than 300 consultants based in 39 offices worldwide. Our consultants work closely with public and private organizations to assess and recruit senior executives and board members to drive long-term growth and success. Our in-depth knowledge of major industries and of our clients’ specific business challenges, combined with our understanding of who and what make an effective leader, ensures that our clients secure the best leadership teams for the ongoing success of their businesses.

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Executives today must navigate increasingly uncertain terrain, driving up the cost of executive failure dramatically. This necessitates that executive selection undergo the same data-driven, analytical rigor applied to financial and operational decisions.
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