Can We Learn From the Big 3?


If you have heard me speak, or read my book (a great, well, a different Christmas gift for your favorite leader), you know that I believe that without vision and communication leadership is doomed. Boy have we seen that in the ongoing struggles of the Big 3 in Washington! What congressmen, journalists, and others have uttered as “obvious” and “well known,” and “everybody knows” about the Big 3’s weaknesses have often times been remarkably false.* “Gas-guzzling, shoddy cars that no one wants.”

Here’s the factual record from the past year:


Consumers Report put Ford at the top of their list for the number of “top safety picks” – with sixteen models. Toyota and GM had eight.


JD Powers’ 2008 “survey of initial quality” ranked Porsche as the only 5-star. At 4-stars, Mercury was tied with Mercedes, Infiniti, Lexus, and Toyota. Next behind: Ford, Chevy, Pontiac, Lincoln all tied with Acura and Honda. What were the top 3 quality cars? Chevy Malibu, Mitsubishi Galant, and Ford Fusion. Is there really a huge quality gap?


The # 1 selling vehicle in America? Despite the truism that American automakers “don’t make products that consumers want,” The Ford F-150 remains the best-selling vehicle not just in America but in the world.


Motor Trend’s Car of the Year? Cadillac CTS.


While Toyota has 8 cars that average 30 mpg or more, Chevy has 7. The 2009 Malibu Hybrid gets nearly 40 MPG. While GM, Ford, Honda, and Toyota ALL introduced hybrids in California in the late ‘90s, it wasn’t just GM’s EV1 that was taken out of production: They all failed commercially and were retired. “What consumers want” – which congressmen and coastal journalists speak of as though it is as obvious as the faces on Mount Rushmore – remains mightily hard to name with any precise foresight.

So, here’s the point: Perhaps the greatest failing of – and greatest challenge for – domestic automakers is their inability to articulate clear, factual and relevant messages. No wonder they’re in the trouble they’re in when people are still thinking they are building the cars of the 80s. Of course there’s plenty of room for improvement, but there is clearly a monster gap between perceptions and realities.

And, here’s the message for us “everyday leaders”: How do WE get our messages out in what someone called a “culture of permanent attention deficit disorder?” (my own ADD prevents me from quoting that person by name). For instance, what’s the central message you were trying to communicate to your kids and staff this year? What is the core message going forward? Can you say the central facts about your organization’s identity (e.g., the Michigan government is about excellence, integrity, teamwork, and inclusion)? Can you put it on a matchbook? Do you have a core message for your children or grandchildren about the value and meaning of these holidays? Or could they miss the point and miss the facts, just as the vast majority of this country has done when it comes to the last 15 years perceiving the domestic car business?

With all the noise out there, think: post-it, note card, matchbook. Keep it simple, repeat it a lot, and

Lead with your best self,