Next-Gen Automotive Leadership with Volkswagen CSMO Andrew Savvas

Next-Gen Automotive Leadership with Volkswagen CSMO Andrew Savvas

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For Andrew Savvas, the auto industry isn’t about selling cars. As the Chief Sales and Marketing Officer of Volkswagen North America, Andrew is at the forefront of innovative design and advertising efforts to increase the German automaker’s U.S. market share, but he sees his most important task as developing a leadership pipeline.

German OEMs have a reputation for “command and control” in their company cultures. While many leaders have started moving away from a focus on compliance and uniformity, Andrew sees room for improvement starting with how organizations hire.

“We need to get braver in employing competencies, not experience,” Andrew says. Instead of looking for certain line items in the resume, organizations should focus on hiring for culture fit and skill set. More importantly, companies need to establish career development pathways that promote diversity in the top leadership roles.

Volkswagen has had five CMOs in ten years, and they’ve all been external hires. “That was the first observation I made when I arrived in this organization — why are we always going external? Why aren't we focused on developing internal talent?” says Andrew. Now, he’s reshaping the company’s leadership model.

Andrew recounts his journey from working at a fish market to becoming an automotive executive. Andrew has worked for Volkswagen on four continents, and he joins the Automotive Leaders Podcast to share what he’s learned about developing a purpose-driven culture and leading with vulnerability.

Themes discussed in this episode: 

  • The broad range of opportunities within the auto industry
  • How automotive leadership is embracing a purpose-driven culture
  • The challenges of attracting — and retaining — Gen Z talent
  • Competency-based development and a new way of hiring
  • How Volkswagen is Expanding its talent pool
  • The pathway to diverse representation in future leadership
  • How to put vulnerable leadership into practice

Featured Guest: Andrew Savvas

What he does: Andrew is the Chief Sales and Marketing Officer of Volkswagen North America. His previous Volkswagen management experience has spanned four continents, and his track record of success in different regional markets has made him one of the auto industry’s most highly-regarded business strategists.

On leadership: “Work out what you're good at and really be comfortable in your own skin […] Don't pretend you're someone else. Don't try to emulate somebody else. Listen, learn, observe, and just focus on how you can make yourself better.”

Episode Highlights

Timestamped inflection points from the show

[3:05] ‘I never dreamed about cars’: Andrew recounts his winding path into the auto industry from immigrating to Australia, working in a fish market, and eventually landing in sales — and he names the people who believed in him along the way.

[7:05] The VW connection: Jan and Andrew discuss the variety of opportunities in the global auto industry, and Jan reveals what kind of car she drives.

[10:27] ICE to BEV: Product transformation is happening as the industry shifts to electric, but how is the leadership model changing? Jan recalls her interview with Stephen Covey about winning in the workplace, and Andrew emphasizes the importance of seeking new viewpoints.

[12:32] Purpose-driven leadership: Jan remembers Stefan Krause how explained the movement from compliance to conviction in German OEMs. Andrew offers his perspective. 

[14:00] Can’t win the numbers game: Andrew says he may not be the smartest in the room, but he energizes his team members through vulnerable leadership. He goes on to elaborate on Volkswagen’s regional market design process.

[18:09] Succession planning: How does Volkswagen attract Gen Z talent? For Andrew, it’s about promoting the industry and competency-based development. 

[21:05] Know the way, show the way: Jan talks about the workplace culture shift and the generational differences that make it hard to empower Gen Z. Andrew emphasizes delivering a sense of purpose and diversifying the industry.

[26:11] Building the pipeline: For Andrew, diversity is the number one challenge in the industry. He shares his experience of growing up as a Greek Cypriot, then details what he’s doing at VW to create diverse representation in future leadership.

[31:21] Hire up: Competency-based hiring sounds good in theory, but most organizations are too afraid to follow through with it. Andrew gives two examples of this actually working.

[36:48] 21 traits: Andrew has no trouble choosing his favorite from Jan’s 21 traits of authentic leadership — vulnerability. He explains how he arrived at this realization early in his career and learned to ask questions.

[41:26] Showing his personal side: Andrew talks about his diverse podcast playlist and his biggest demon of distraction.

[47:11] Closing comments: Don’t pretend to be someone you’re not, Andrew urges. He explains why authenticity is so important in a person’s career development.

Top quotes

[7:39] Andrew: “[The auto industry] isn't just about selling cars. The diversity of opportunity in this industry is enormous […] It's global and it's changing so fast, and if you can't be energized by this industry, I'm not sure what will energize you.”

[12:04] Andrew: “For us, a diversity of views, a broader spectrum of what's happening in the industry, is super important […] We need to get better as an industry in really focusing on competencies rather than experience. That's why we're not seeing the diversity in some parts of this industry.”

[20:10] Andrew: “Someone believed in me once, and I will never forget that. I need to create those pathways and show that if you are good in this organization, you will grow within this organization, and you can move anywhere. That's been my focal point in what I am doing with my own people.” 

[27:37] Andrew: “This is the biggest challenge I take on in my job. I don't see my job as someone who sells cars or markets a brand. I see my job in the industry as creating future leaders. So I'm always thinking about, how can I take that challenge of creating a more diverse workforce and a more diverse leadership group so then we can have a better, stronger, and more viable organization?”

[31:33] Jan: “I see it time and time again where supply chain leaders say, I need a commodity manager for this particular commodity. I’ve got to make sure that they've got experience in that area and they've worked in automotive. Otherwise, they're not going to survive. So you end up with this really narrow pool of candidates. You've got to get over that — and there will be judgment from your colleagues that you hired somebody that does not have the skill set in particular, whether it's a mechanical area or whatever that competency is required. And you’ve got to get over that and say, No, this is exactly the type of person we want in this organization.

Mentioned in this episode:

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