The view of a CEO on the VW scandal

November 20, 2015 4 comments

Looking back at last week’s post, it becomes clear that when fear and power distance replace trust and collaboration, a whole culture will dangerously shift from creative and performant to risk averse and compliance driven, from honest, challenging and transparent to deception and lies loaded.

A lot has already been published on the VW scandal but a recent column written by Bob Lutz (a Swiss born retired executive at BMW, Chrysler and GM) drew my attention. It is in line with what was published on our blog last week.

When the VW scandal broke during the Summer, the spotlights rapidly and understandably focused on its CEO, Martin Winterkorn, who, after an arrogant initial stand, had no other choice than stepping down,in front of the magnitude of the disaster. Many questions broke, to which the German police inquiry will try to respond: Did Mr Winterkorn order this explicitly? Did he not want to see? Was he simply condemned to trust his gigantic organization? Or can he be criticized for having failed to make the organization he ran “Trustworthy”?

Bob Lutz is pretty clear on the causes of the scandal. When he talks about the VW culture and the man he holds responsible for it, Chairman Ferdinand Piëch, he writes: “a reign of terror and a culture where performance was driven by fear and intimidation”. Placed in front of a “Perform or die ultimatum” (to become the World’s No1 and defeat Toyota had become obsessional), people would have little choice, if they wanted to keep their jobs at Volkswagen. As Lutz puts it: “Under this situation, your choice was immediate dismissal or find a way to pass the test and pay the consequences later. Human nature being what it is—if it’s lose your job today for sure or lose your job maybe a year from now, we always pick maybe a year from now.”

I am wondering: As leaders, how many employees do we constrain to think like VW engineers probably did? We may not all be as harsh as Mr. Piëch of course but an eyebrow, a criticism, forgetting to mention someone in a speech, or a movement of impatience are all details that concur to install a distance between us and the people we lead.

Sometimes, the purpose of the leader, his ideology, is precisely to behave as Mr. Piëch is reported to: The belief is that fear is a powerful motivator. So I do mean to scare them, I dointend to create a distance because I believe that, should I be too close, I will revert to my status of human, I will be “one of them” again and won’t be able to “motivate them by fear”. But the experienced Bob Lutz firmly rejects that ideology: “That management style gets short-term results, but it’s a culture that’s extremely dangerous. Look at dictators. Dictators invariably wind up destroying the very countries they thought their omniscience and omnipotence would make great. It’s fast and it’s efficient, but at huge risk.”

Luckily, most of the time, our intention is to create a management style that is engaging, induces creativity, measured risk taking, innovation and loyalty. We intend to create a wonderful culture as our legacy for the place which hired us to lead it. But life, with its moments of doubts, stress, anxiety, disappointment or on the contrary, happiness and joy of private life, its episodes of tension, conflict, annoyance or satisfaction and development on our professional side makes us very vulnerable to changes of temper. I was exhausted two weeks ago and some of my trusted colleagues have been shot at, more because of that than because of what they said…

However, no matter our ideology or intention, even if we mean well, any derailment will give birth to a story which will add to the legend people are constructing about us… and those stories will concur to create the culture we want (when positive) or its exact opposite (when negative).

So what can we do? My advice to such well-intentioned leaders who happen to have derailed (as I just did that week) is simply to admit it, apologize and reconnect with not only the person involved but also with those who witnessed the scene. This will reassure them, will clearly demonstrate our intention and capacity to take criticism and be self-critical. It will show them that we accept feedback and expect them to provide it to us when we fail to be the exemplary leader we intend to be. It will also profoundly reassure them that… we are simply human and aware of it!






  • “In the routine performance of their duties as leaders and commanders, U.S. Army officers lie”

    November 13, 2015 2 comments

    On February 27th, CNN commented a recent publication by the War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, commissioned by exiting Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel. Following the research, conducted by Leonard Wong, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute and retired Army officer, and behavioral sciences Professor Stephen Gerras, who held company and battalion command roles during his 25 years in…

    Read the full article →

  • Are you ready to shift from GPS to Waze leader?

    July 4, 2015 0 comments

    Disruption… Recently, Gerd Leonhard published a series of short (2’) clips on different and unusual aspects of this phenomenon (privacy failure, knowledge & learning, future of jobs, automation, offline as the new luxury). I encourage you to take a look at his site and watch the 6 of them. This is just the introduction. Disruption, like change, has become an…

    Read the full article →

  • If you must provoke a radical turnaround… Try benevolence!

    June 25, 2015 0 comments

    Often, when parachuted into a turnaround situation, we face a bit of a dilemma: Do I “shake my people up” or do I comfort them? A first surprising experience of leadership as a ski instructor (for those of you who know me now, it is inconceivable that I once had long hair and was nicknamed “Jesus”), came by trying to…

    Read the full article →

  • Get rid of your “superstars”!

    June 20, 2015 0 comments

    This morning, actuality came knocking on the door of this blog, which explains why it is posted later than usual. The news is irrelevant in the context of the existing horrors and gigantic economic and environmental challenges. But in the microcosm of football, I read that Brazil, engaged into the Copa America, will have to do, once again, without their…

    Read the full article →

  • Der Weg ist das Ziel! How to create an impactful statement

    June 13, 2015 0 comments

    Last week’s post has attracted a lot of attention and numerous comments (almost all private, given the level most of you operate at). A consensus seems to emerge: A Vision/Mission/Strategic/Values Statement  cannot be reduced to a simple communication exercise. Nevertheless, we often fall into the trap of thinking that the elaboration of an almost perfect statement, and its subsequent communication…

    Read the full article →

  • No company ever became visionary through a vision statement!

    June 5, 2015 0 comments

    Built to last, the book from Stanford professors James Collins and Jerry Porras has been a revelation for millions of students, academics and executives, since its publication in 1994. It has since lost a part of its credibility (see this article in Fast Company), as many of the companies it described as sustainable (built to last) seem to have met…

    Read the full article →

  • Wish to evaluate your ability to engage followers? Take the handrail test

    May 28, 2015 0 comments

    As the novelist, who knows the nightmare of facing, without the slightest inspiration, a desperately white sheet for hours, the business leader sometimes fears this Moment of Truth, when he will have to engage his organization in an apparently dull, unspectacular but necessary challenge. That is why HSE, sustainability, compliance, risk, quality, excellence, innovation, diversity and others often remain buzzwords,…

    Read the full article →

  • Hollywood and Military know how to engage their organizations in the Disruption Economy

    May 22, 2015 2 comments

    Recently, I saw been delivered a fascinating session explaining to business executives, how professional troops were operating, under extreme conditions, when disruption and unexpected changes were the rules of the game. speaker explained that under such conditions, the old “Command & Control” was totally inefficient and illusory, given the fact that people in operations needed to react faster than their…

    Read the full article →

  • Diversity is endangered by the politically correct!

    May 15, 2015 14 comments

    In our network, we count 9 wemen (out of 35), 1 Algerian, 4 Americans, 1 Australian, 3 Belgians, 5 Brazilians, 7 British, 3 Canadians, 1 Congolese, 1 Dutch, 9 French, 1 German, 1 Lebanese, 1 Swede, 3 Swiss (yes it counts more than 35 as we have double nationals) and we are based in Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Honk-Kong,…

    Read the full article →

  • Your feedback and creativity are needed

    May 8, 2015 14 comments

    In the recent months, still positively influenced by Nokia’s “Connecting People” way of life and belief, I happened to match executives needing to change horizon with clients looking for the rare bird. And it seems to have been happy marriages. In each of the cases, our clients informally had turned to us, as they were unimpressed by the solution or…

    Read the full article →