Throughout my nearly 30-year automotive career, the single-most defining leadership experience can be traced back to the fall of 2015.
During that time, I was elected chairman of the Volkswagen National Dealer Advisory Council. A Texas guy through and through, I was excited to have the global VW spotlight shining on the Dallas-Fort Worth area while serving as the voice of the American dealer network for a rising international brand. I anticipated running big meetings and relaying vital information to VW’s German decisionmakers. It certainly would be fast-paced, with huge responsibilities, but nothing I couldn’t handle.
Just weeks into my new post, the VW cheat-device scandal sent the brand into a total tailspin. I was spun into the highly scrutinized world of calming worried dealers and participating in the negotiations that resulted in payments of $1.85 million to each of VW’s 652 dealers in the United States.
Overwhelming? Yes. Inexplicable growth opportunity? Absolutely.
I wouldn’t trade my Dieselgate experience for anything. It changed me in ways that I didn’t even realize were possible, setting me up for future success in both business and everyday life. It was incredibly stressful, but also the most enjoyable time in my career.
That said, what specifically did I learn? And how do I leverage those lessons into productive leadership moments now that I have transitioned from franchisee to franchisor?
1. Communicate With Speed.
With 652 dealerships expecting regular, accurate updates from VW headquarters during the Dieselgate fallout, the key to keeping the peace was consistent, transparent communication.
Our council was proactive and to the point. We did not leave people on an island to let their thoughts and stresses spiral out of control.
Situations improve with communication and worsen without it. Leave people in the dark and watch their trust for you decay. Alternatively, bring them along for the ride with crisp, consistent communications and watch their trust for you grow. It’s as simple as that.
2. Lead With Information.
My pivotal moment of leadership during Dieselgate came during a meeting with VW heads of state in Germany. I sat across the table from the most powerful people in the company and told them there would be reparations due to our American dealers, but that particular meeting wasn’t the time to work them out.
Instead, we had to let the dust settle longer in order to truly understand the damages. Although awaiting the necessary information for telling the story can seem interminable, it’s worth the wait when it comes to leading in a productive, effective manner.
The next six to 12 months were pivotal. We worked relentlessly to make sure we had the voice of the dealership network boxed correctly. If we misrepresented their requests, we would not reach our end goals.
3. Seize Your Signature Leadership Moments.
We all experience signature leadership moments. While we’re running teams for a significant length of time, we’ll be stretched and challenged during a pivotal meeting, discussion, or conflict. What you do in those moments defines your leadership legacy in the eyes of those around you.
Our council’s efforts during Dieselgate helped push the Euro-centric VW to understanding that it needed to pay closer attention to the North American market. Additionally, it unified the U.S. dealer network in a way that seemed impossible prior to this unfortunate event in the brand’s otherwise respected history.
With all of the twists and turns that occurred during Dieselgate, there was no way to be fully prepared. It also was pointless to be scared. We were in those leadership positions for a reason and never backed down to the immense pressure of doing what was right for our American dealer partners.
Signature leadership moments don’t come every day. Will you be ready for yours?
Alan Brown is executive vice president of NuVinAir Global, a national provider of proprietary vehicle-cleanliness products, and the former general manager and partner at Lewisville and McKinney Volkswagen.