Subaru’s Michael McHale on Leading in Fast Times

October 31, 2016

I first met Michael McHale, director, corporate communications, Subaru America, as a regular attendee of and valuable contributor to the roundtable discussions of the Senior Professionals Group of PRSA New Jersey. Previously, he held senior communications positions for BMW of North America, MINI USA and Land Rover.

Throughout your career, you’ve handled PR responsibilities for different companies globally, in North America and now in the U.S. How does that experience inform how you lead people?

At one point I was one of 30,000 employees working in a Land Rover factory in the U.K. We were having difficult days in the early ‘80s, and I remember how isolated from the company you could feel when you’re on the shop floor. But I also remember getting communications from the top via town halls and newsletters. It might be that we had a new contract in Tunisia, but those nuggets made you feel confident about your job. So I learned how important those communications could be in helping people feel confident, secure in their jobs and connected to the company. 

John Towers, chief executive, Rover Group, had this cheery, Liverpudlian approach, despite being Oxford educated, which made people feel that he shared their concerns. 

I always imagine a fictional person named “Mary in Accounting” and I try to think about what she needs to feel better about our company. She’s hearing water cooler chat, and we need her to feel we understand her situation. It’s easy to forget you’re communicating to real people.
And it’s easy to forget how out of touch the top level can be, and not to let that happen.

You’re in an industry that’s been changing at warp speed. How does that affect how you lead people?

I think the challenge is always to see and react to change, but not to overreact to every fad. You must understand the difference between genuine change and every fad that comes along.

You want to be sure that you’re not doing something just because it’s new. At the same time, you don’t want to do what you’ve always done because it feels safe. Social media is a new channel, but it’s not the complete answer to brand communication. You must still always bring it back to common sense. What’s relevant to our targets’ lives, their families, their communities? It’s got to be real life.

People may share how happy they are with their new Subaru, but they’re not going to shill for us. And we shouldn’t ask them to do so.

It must always be done with respect, the same way we treat journalists. We only call if we have new news. We don’t call to say “We have a new paint color.” I think that communicates respect for what they do, and their time. It’s about always being valuable, whether you’re a journalist or one of our followers on Facebook. It’s about treating them as human beings.

How has leadership changed since you first became a true leader?

I think in this industry we’re time-crunched more than we ever were. The advent of email and texting means the workday never stops. I may be emailing my team at 10 p.m. at night, and that’s not good leadership. I’ve learned that while it makes me feel good, it makes my people feel bad. I try to only pass on the things I need answers on when I need the answers, so that people have their own time to themselves.

It’s about being out of the office and not having my people feel I’m bombarding them just to get things off my plate. 

What are the three best books on leadership that you recommend?

I haven’t read that many, not for some years now. But I do look at TED Talks religiously.

I tend to read a lot of scientific books. You can pull out a lot about leadership from those books. I’m reading the biography of the British politician Ed Balls. It’s about dealing with adversity, and frustrations about not getting the job done.

Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs is principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching. Visit his website (www.jacobscomm.com) and contact him by email (ken@jacobscomm.com) or Twitter (@KensViews).

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