Janet Barnard, 61
Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer, Cox Automotive
Education: B.A., accounting, University of Nebraska
What drew you to the auto industry? I had spent 23 years in that part of the business [in Cox Communications], and I met in a development program some of our [general managers] from Manheim and I saw their mindset as being similar — fast-moving, hard-charging — and that was attractive to me. So I liked the energy and the drive of the business.
First automotive job: December of 2011. I was the COO of Manheim.
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Big break: My first job as a GM at Cox Communications was probably the big turning point in my career, because it was the first P&L role that I had. And being in the accounting and finance world, I had had a very broad view of the business and how it worked and really had an early interest in operations, even in my finance role.
What is the major challenge you’ve faced in your career? I’m a very authentic, direct, no- hidden-agenda kind of person. And so because I believe in that and because I also desire that from people I talk to, I sometimes assume that everyone else wants to be the same way, and that’s just not the case. And so being careful not to color someone else’s perspective with my own is probably one of the biggest challenges in leadership to me.
You’ve been in the industry nine years. What has been the most important change you’ve seen? Really starting to get serious about modes of transportation that are more affordable for the masses, who increasingly will have trouble buying a car at $30,000 or higher, making the planet safer and being much more willing to kind of break old paradigms in terms of what constitute building a vehicle. [Secondly], a realization on the part of dealers in particular that operating by your gut is not the way to operate a profitable dealership anymore. Seeing some of our dealers and some of the progressive ways in which they serve consumers now is really encouraging.
Describe your leadership style. I’m big on results, and I’m big on how we get those results by creating follower-ship and by being a servant leader. It’s always guided me. As we dug into some of the social unrest issues that have gone on recently, our company has done a lot of soul-searching and we’re starting to do some real roll-up-your-sleeves work around what it means to be an inclusive leader. And I think that’s the angle of my leadership that I’m most focused on now.
What have you learned from the COVID-19 crisis? I’ve learned that people are even more resilient than I thought they were. When I look at the fact that we took 50,000 people and said, “Guess what? Don’t come back to the office tomorrow and start working from home,” that would have taken us decades to make happen if COVID had not happened, because we would have always felt like we’re not ready, we don’t know if this is a good thing, can people really do it? We’d go through a whole years-long change management program and we didn’t have any of that. And so it really gives me a lot of hope and inspiration for other really bold things that we could do that I think many times we pause on because we don’t think our people can do it.
What should be done to encourage women to enter the auto industry? While I think there are still just inherent insider-outsider disadvantages for women in automotive or any other field, I think the doors are much more open than they were. I think there’s still opportunity to do more to, again, get women in that top executive level. And I also look to the men, especially the white men in our industry who still are the majority here, and really would just look you all in the eye and say: You can help us fix this, and we need you to help us fix it. It’s finding great male sponsors who have a passion around equality and getting all the voices at the table, whether it’s in an industry forum or whether it’s inside a boardroom as part of a team.
Are you able to achieve work-life balance? I woke up one day some years back and said, “You know what, I’m never done. So why do I think that if I stay a few more hours I’m going to be done? You’re never done.” So I think I’m getting better over time at work-life balance. But if I’m being really honest, there are probably too many times that someone in my household will say something to me, and I’ll say, “What did you say?” Or, we’ll have a conversation later and my husband will say, “I told you that,” and I’m like, “No, you didn’t.” Well, I’m sure he did, and I wasn’t paying attention. I have to catch myself sometimes because I’m thinking about a problem or something that we’re trying to work on when I don’t even realize I’m thinking about it.
— Lindsay VanHulle