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Rising Stars: Vision and a stint abroad

Ever wondered what headhunters look for when they are selecting potential candidates? Top of the list are leadership, strategic vision, clarity and passion.

All are attributes that any manager can possess, irrespective of age and experience. Foremost is strategic vision: it singles out the people who will shape the future of the automotive industry – and it will be a key attribute for the winner of the AM Rising Stars in association with Courland Automotive Practice.

“These people know it’s all about identifying two or three key areas that will make a difference, then they push on to achieve them,” says Chris Donkin, managing partner, Europe, Courland Automotive Practice.

“And they have the ability to communicate their vision in a clear way to the rest of the company.”

Take Carlos Ghosn, for example. The incoming Renault chairman identified three crucial areas to tackle (his 180 revival plan) when appointed chairman and chief executive at loss-making Nissan.

He was ruthless in pursuing them – and had the ability to take the business with him. Not only did Ghosn turn around Nissan, he became accepted as the first non-Japanese head of the carmaker, because he communicated the plans internally.

“This is a people business – they make the difference,” says Donkin. “Leadership is about recruiting a management team, empowering the people and letting them get on with it. And you need passion. The automotive industry is different from other sectors; you have to have a passion both for the industry as a whole and for the product, the cars.”

Passion for cars drew Donkin into the industry. After 15 years’ experience as an account manager at an advertising firm, much of which was dealing with automotive clients including Jaguar, Ford and Volvo, he realised he was as passionate about the automotive industry as he was about advertising, “perhaps more so”.

But it wasn’t an easy decision. “It’s very easy if you spend 15 years in one industry to believe that your skills and experiences are particular to that industry,” Donkin says. “It’s not until you move out that you realise this is not the case. Sales skills and business development are highly transferable and desirable.”

Perhaps that explains why few middle managers consider moving sideways from general retailing into cars. Many that have joined from outside have struggled to make their mark, despite being higher skilled and intelligent people. Automotive is more complex than other areas of retailing: it has unique dynamics and newcomers can find it difficult to grasp issues like product pricing, specification and positioning.

“If you bring people in from outside you have to find out what they are good at and where they need to be supported. The secret is to give them that support in the early days,” says Donkin. “People fail if the company did not invest enough time to ease them into the industry. The principles are simple; the execution is complex.”

But when it works, the results are excellent. Donkin points to people like Peter Rask, ex-Unilever, at Volvo, and Rawden Glover, ex-Camelot, at Seat. Non-automotive managers can be highly successful.

The automotive industry experiences around 100 job changes a year that interest Courland, around 80% in senior middle management and 20% full executives. As recently as the 1980s recruitment developments were domestically driven – UK people for a UK market. Now you can only progress beyond a certain ceiling if you have international experience.

“These days you need to have done a stint in China or Eastern Europe – car companies are looking for this level of experience and car retailers will follow suit – we are already starting to see this,” says Donkin. “In fact, if I had one piece of advice to people starting their career it is: if you are offered a foreign assignment take it – and pick the difficult ones.”

So how does Courland see its role? “We help the industry to find the best talent and contribute to its long-term future. It’s important to us that we help to improve the level of talent through services like executive search, HR and people related consultancy service,” says Donkin.

The big prize

The big prize..

The overall winner of Rising Stars will have a place reserved on the Ashridge Leadership Process course. The five-day programme at Ashridge Business School in Berkhamstead, Herts, is designed to help participants become the best they can in their professional role. Information about Ashridge can be found at

Rising Stars' partner

Rising Stars partner Courland Automotive Practice is the only exclusively automotive resourcing firm providing executive search, interim management, middle management recruitment and consulting services to the worldwide automotive industry –

The judges

Roger Putnam
Ford of Britain, chairman

Adrian Joseph, group sales & marketing director, Trafficmaster

Sarah Sillars
Institute of the Motor Industry, chief executive

Peter Phillips
GMAC European leasing chief financial officer

Nick Smith
Inchcape plc, global HR director

Neil Burrows
Goodyear Dunlop group, marketing director

Stuart Dyble, PAG & Ford of Europe VP of communications

  • Finalists and an overall winner in each Rising Stars category will be announced at an awards ceremony at The Church House, Westminster, London, on April 21, 2005.
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