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GM's Susan Docherty latest female auto executive to be humiliated

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GM's Susan Docherty latest female auto executive to be humiliated



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.

One of the industry’s highest-profile women executives has been publicly humiliated before our eyes. Is Docherty just collateral damage in the competitive wars playing out in GM’s executive suites? Or is this really more evidence of the toxic culture that awaits women who dare venture into the auto industry’s leadership ranks?

Consider the facts:

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.

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?

In 2006, I wrote a piece for Automotive News documenting the hemorrhaging of senior GM, Ford and Chrysler women who were leaving for executive positions in other industries. Since then I’ve been working on a book, POWER UP: An American Woman’s Guide to Leading, which has immersed me in the latest research and front line experience of women leaders.

What have I learned? 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.

The auto industry restructuring has hit women particularly hard – can you name the very few women leaders at Ford, Chrysler or suppliers? But, given the continued growing economic power of women, the company that addresses the work culture issues driving the best and brightest women out of the industry will have a powerful competitive advantage.



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