Deborah Wahl, 57
Global Chief Marketing Officer, General Motors
Education: B.A., economics, Wellesley College; MBA, marketing, and M.A., international/global studies, University of Pennsylvania
What drew you to the auto industry? Passion, excitement. When I came back from a stint in Paris, I was interviewing for many different opportunities, and I thought the auto industry had the best recruitment tool. They actually took all the new recruits who were coming in, put us on a test track and had us drive around the test track. And from that day forward it was obvious that this is the most exciting, passionate industry of the many that you could get in. In my whole career, the majority of which has been spent in auto, I have never stopped learning and never stopped being challenged.
First automotive job: My first automotive job was in 1995 for Ford Motor Co. I did a six-month stint at the headquarters in Dearborn and then was sent to Brazil. So really, Brazil was my first automotive marketing assignment.
Big break: There were a series of them. When I was on my first assignment in Brazil, we did many firsts at the time. We did the first test drives. We really started orienting toward the female customer in Brazil and showing the potential there. And we increased market share by four points over two years. That was the first acknowledgment of what can happen when you really focus on the customers and think about audiences differently. From there, I went to Mazda, played a good role in the strategy of Zoom Zoom, although it was my predecessor who did the brilliant campaign. And then I had a stint at Toyota. I learned a lot from their approach and continuous improvement. We did significant increase in the Lexus brand. It’s a series of growth and learning and applying core principles about the consumer and what we’re after.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? Growth. How do we come to identify where the possibilities are? Then how do we change our strategies and align everyone in a company? It’s the work that goes on, aligning and preparing for it and doing the changes and making sure that we’re all working together as a whole to achieve it. That’s where the true challenge is.
You’ve been in the industry 15 years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? We’re at a true point of renaissance about the possibilities and the transformation that’s about to happen. It’s one of the reasons that I was so interested in participating with General Motors and being on that team to contribute.
I think we’re better as a whole, as an industry about how we go after customers, how we’re using data, how we’re using technology, speaking from the marketing chair. The change in how we do work, how people think about doing work, how we look at transformation to me has been the most compelling. And I also believe that this period with the COVID pandemic has really accelerated all of us to think completely differently about it.
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? I’ve learned that agility has no bounds, that if we can come up with a whole approach to manufacturing ventilators in 18 days, then we can do anything in marketing. That’s our new benchmark. I’ve learned that even as we’re physically far apart, we can be closer than ever based on the conversations and how we approach. And then I think finally, the murder of George Floyd had a big impact on our teams and how we all work together. We learned, and I personally learned, the benefit of reaching out to groups or one to one to check in and say, “Hi, how are you doing today with all this going on?” and then learning. It’s been the most profound learning moment of my life, as I’ve understood for African American employees, the challenges that they have gone through, how all of us play a role and how we can help. It’s really strengthened my commitment to make sure that we go much, much further on this. We all perform better when we feel good, included, respected and that our voices can be heard.
Is there anything you wish you had done differently in your career? Especially being a woman in automotive, where I was many times the only woman in the room, it often felt like a battle or a fight that had to be won. One of my colleagues at one point looked at me and he said, “Why do you think you have to win everything?” That was a huge awareness aha moment for me about the approach and that it isn’t about that. It is about working together and benefiting, asking for help in much better ways. When you’re a young achiever, and you really want to go faster, that was a big learning for me. Once I adapted that and started to learn to ask for help, I was amazed at how much help came and how many things we could do. To make growth happen or big things happen, it does need to be all of us together, everyone pushing in the same direction without any of those limitations.
Are you able to achieve work-life balance? I’ve gone through so many phases in my career path about work-life balance. I think I’m better at it now than I’ve ever been because I’ve realized it’s not a guilty thing to take the time for yourself. It actually helps you work better. I have parameters and maybe I’m not getting every single email done or every response done, but it’s really important. It’s the way we stay sane. The biggest thing we have to do is not create anxiety in others. Form an environment that allows them to be their best, and you have to be at your best to do that.
— Hannah Lutz