General Motors makes a bold step and puts a designer at the helm of its luxury brand. But, what does that mean?
By Howard Allen
Automotive designer Bryan Nesbitt recently filled the General Manager position at Cadillac. Does that sound as unusual to you as it does to me? That’s because it is quite uncommon for designers to move into top executive roles within the automotive industry.
Is it feasible to hand a designer such a responsibility or is this another managerial misstep by GM? Is this an imbalance in leadership skills perhaps? With the phrase “design thinking” being bantered about as the next savior of brands worldwide, I wonder what’s behind the decision by GM to make a designer the leader of a critical aspect of its business. The situation begs the question, is success as a designer enough to warrant someone becoming the general manager of what is arguably your most important brand?
Based on what has been written about Mr. Nesbitt thus far, we can’t get a sense of whether or not he is well rounded enough to take on the responsibilities of an executive role. Generally, each article mentions Nesbitt’s most notable accomplishments as designer. There are details about the Chrysler PT Cruiser, Chevrolet HHR and the Chevrolet Malibu. Prior to his current role, Nesbitt was VP of Design in North America for GM as well as the Design Director of GM Europe. Some articles mention that he oversaw the Cadillac CTS Coupe and Sport Wagon projects and that he will be reporting directly to new VP Bob Lutz, but that’s it.
I’m not trying to belittle the notion of design thinking as a legitimate business approach or Mr. Nesbitt’s accomplishments by any means. I’m a designer myself. What would make perfect sense is finding a candidate who is balanced–Someone who isn’t solely analytical or creative, but both. Someone who is shrewd, business savvy and dynamic – a creative thinker wrapped into one, uber-executive. Mr. Nesbitt may very well be that person, but what has been currently written about him doesn’t speak to that point.
The fact that GM’s PR team isn’t positioning their new executive in that context is an indication that the organization may not fully understand how to strategically or holistically leverage design. Or they’re playing possum.
Forget about the game of executive musical chairs that has gone on at GM for the past couple months and turn your attention to the experience of their current roster of general managers. James M. Campbell was recently named general manager of Chevrolet, and Brian Sweeney has been tapped to lead the Buick/GMC brands. Campbell presided over GM’s fleet and commercial operations and is said to have a strong track record of building relationships and partnerships with dealers and customers. Mr. Sweeney also has lots of experience within GM and has held numerous sales and marketing leadership positions with Buick, Pontiac and GMC. Both Campbell and Sweeney appear to be uninspired choices for leadership. Why? It’s because they’re predictable. What they’ve accomplished is important, but it’s what you would expect from GM and what we’ve gotten from this organization in the past won’t make them successful in the future.
However, when you add someone like Bryan Nesbitt into the mix, some interesting possibilities reveal themselves. If GM is genuinely looking to shake things up in their leadership ranks and in the development of their products, they would take advantage of this potential opportunity by touting Bryan as their new archetype for leadership. Someone who not only can provide a balanced perspective on operations, customer experience, dealer relations, and product development as expected, but also understands how design relates to those areas as a strategic tool enabling Cadillac to be competitive in the future.
The greatest challenge Cadillac faces is the gap between the image the manufacturer has created for the Cadillac automobile and the experience consumers have when buying or maintaining the automobile. As General Motors sheds both Hummer and Saab, Cadillac will have to create a showroom and service experience that is totally unique. If Cadillac wants to continue attracting younger sophisticated consumers, creating an experience that makes consumers feel as though they belong to an exclusive community wouldn’t be a bad idea (i.e. Harley-Davidson, Mini Cooper). Cadillac has created a line of luxury cars, but some would consider the consumer experience that comes along with purchasing and owning a Cadillac to be lacking.
Currently, a visit to a Cadillac, Buick/GMC or Chevy showroom is more of a General Motors experience that doesn’t differentiate much between brands. The notion of “general” or generic is the last thing consumers of luxury products want associated with their consumer experience. That means Mr. Nesbitt would have to provide a vision for a total Cadillac experience that is on par with its European competitors such as BMW or Audi. As a designer, he is just the person to create such an experience.
If this sort of problem was left to an accountant or operations manager, I would say GM was fighting a losing battle. But a designer in an executive position is able to set the vision and collaborate with traditional business functions to overcome the vulnerability Cadillac has with its over-arching brand experience.
Howard Allen is an independent design strategist focused on collaborating with executives to determine how design is enabling their organizations to be more agile, sustainable and innovative. Formerly a design director at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Howard has greatly benefited from working within a global firm alongside partners connected to the interests of business leaders. Howard is also an ’05 alum of Pratt’s DM program.