From its inception, the auto industry has been a huge driver of economic growth, but today it faces larger obstacles than ever: consumers are more discerning, regulations are tighter, competition is hotter, and technologies continue to advance how people buy, maintain, and sell their vehicles. In addition to those changes, the demographics of leadership in the auto industry are showing some signs of changing – the proportion of women in leadership positions in the auto industry is showing some slow signs of growth. 

However, the overall proportion is still quite low at 8%, and only 1% of women consider a career in the auto industry a viable career option.  In order to continue to correct this, it’s vital for anyone in a position of leadership to adapt their leadership techniques in order to make the industry as a whole a more rewarding, fair, and equitable place for workers of any gender.

All of these factors hugely impact the skills required to successfully be a leader in today’s auto industry.  In order to help industry leaders better understand and face these new challenges, today we will explore a few of the obstacles facing automotive leaders today, and suggest how to adapt to your own automotive business.

Drivers of Change

The 20th century was largely an engineering-driven industry, and that is definitely shifting in the new century. Today, consumers empowered by the accessibility of information via the internet know exactly what they want in a vehicle, and the answer generally isn’t a high-performing engine. Technological features like connectivity, convenience, and eco-friendliness outrank the old traditional selling points of handling and power, especially among women. In an effort to constantly innovate, the industry has changed vastly in the last 21 years, and the pace of that change continues to be relentless today.

Related: Laura Liswood from the Council of Women World Leaders dives into the importance of workplace diversity

From the perspective of automotive leadership, this new fluid industry landscape requires a much more flexible and adaptive leadership style, particularly if we want to attract more women in leadership in the auto industry. Leaders today should be able to quickly shift focus from operational challenges to strategic design. Today’s automotive industry leaders need to be able to respond with focus and speed when new challenges arise. To that end, it’s important for today’s leaders to know which leadership style is best suited to them, and gets the fastest, and most effective results from their team. Here is a brief overview of the 6 leadership styles developed by Daniel Goleman in his book, Primal Leadership.

The Coercive Style

The coercive leadership style, historically, has been the traditional “top-down” approach used by most people in a leadership role. This is the “Just do what I say” approach, and is used by many leaders because, frankly, it’s the easiest role for a frustrated manager to fall into. Unfortunately, this leadership style is probably the least effective style today. Coercive leadership styles are inherently inflexible, and thus ill-equipped to deal with a constantly changing industry, not to mention harmful to employee morale and motivation. This is also a predominantly masculine leadership style, and while there are certainly female managers who use it, most women in leadership will lean towards one or more of the other styles, and to greater effect.

The Authoritative / Visionary Style

Though initially named “authoritative,” perhaps a better name for this style is “visionary.”  Contrary to what one’s impressions of the term “authoritative” may be, this style gives employees a great amount of autonomy to choose their own methods. The visionary leader sets a strong goal and uses a “come with me” approach while allowing their team to choose the best way to achieve said goal. This style is great for a team that has a high level of expertise but lacks a clear direction, but may not be the best for training fresh team members. One example of a visionary/authoritative leader is Mary Barra, Chairman, and CEO of General Motors, who leads the company with a vision of zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion.

The Affiliative Style

collaborationThe affiliative style of leadership offers even more autonomy to employees  This is the “people come first” style and is very helpful for creating team harmony.  In this style, the leaders work with the team as a colleague, not necessarily as an authority, and the focus is on positive feedback and collaboration. One of the downsides of this leadership style is that if used exclusively, it can allow poorly performing workers to continue to slow team progress. When Pamela Fletcher, VP of Innovation at General Motors, was tasked with developing a successful electric car, she likely put the affiliative leadership style through its paces. Like many of her employees, she also holds an engineering degree, enabling a leader in her position to take a more collaborative approach with their team.

The Democratic Style

This leadership style is exactly what it sounds like. This is a bottom-up leadership style that focuses on giving workers a voice in company-wide decisions. This is a dynamic, highly adaptive style that can be used to dramatically increase an organization’s flexibility and ability to innovate new ideas. One of the downsides here is that giving every employee an equal voice can lead to longer and more frequent meetings, which is something that not everyone enjoys. This style does, however, ensure that everyone has a voice – something that is important to women seeking a career in the auto industry.

The Pacesetting Style

The Pacesetter leader is a leader who not only sets high standards for their employees but also exemplifies. Not to be confused with the Coercive “Just do as I say” approach, the pacesetter’s mantra is “Let’s do it right now!” This style is very effective for competent employees with a strong sense of self-motivation, but employees who are less passionate about the industry can be overwhelmed by this style’s demanding nature. Trudy Hardy, VP of Marketing for BMW North America, likely utilized this leadership style when she introduced the MINI brand to American drivers.

The Coaching Style

Finally, the coaching leadership style focuses more on providing personal development than on broader work-related goals. This style is great for fresh employees who have a desire to improve and are receptive to feedback. This leadership style is very people-focused and can be quite effective if properly implemented with a team with high potential but lower expertise. This style is great for building up workers who lack confidence as well as expertise and is a great way to cultivate a work atmosphere that is welcoming and supportive of women in the auto industry.

Which Leadership Style is Best?

There is no correct answer to which leadership style is best – in fact, the most effective leaders will use more than one, though they may gravitate naturally to one or two styles more than the others. Which works best for you will depend on your own strengths and philosophies as a leader, on the makeup of your team, and on the challenges and goals facing your business at the moment. Experiment with several new styles and see how they work with your organization. Just remember to stay flexible and adaptive, and the moment you see a style that may not be effective, don’t hesitate to shift.

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