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Dr. Herbert Diess, Chairman of the Board of Management of the Volkswagen Group. Image courtesy Volkswagen AG.

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Diess Survives Volkswagen Board Review — For Now

Herbert Diess was hauled before a special committee last week to discuss his management style. If the committee made a decision about his future, they are being very quiet about it.

Herbert Diess, CEO of the Volkswagen Group, was put under the microscope recently after he suggested publicly that as many as 30,000 manufacturing jobs at the company could be lost if it fails to meet the challenge from competitors, principally Tesla. His remarks were interpreted by some, especially Daniela Cavallo, the head of the works council, as a threat to fire 30,000 employees.

Diess further inflamed the passions of company insiders when he invited Elon Musk to call in to a meeting of 200 Volkswagen senior managers. That annoyed just about everyone in the company who wasn’t already annoyed by the job cuts thing and resulted in a call to convene the rarely use mediation committee of the Volkswagen management board. That committee is made up of representatives from the company’s largest shareholders as well as the head of the works council (worker union).

A meeting was held last Tuesday but no announcements were made afterwards. The only things Reuters could uncover about the meeting were two statements from anonymous sources. The first said, “This topic is so hot, it is on a knife edge. I can’t say anything further.” The other said, “As expected, there is nothing new.” The most that can be gleaned from this kerfuffle is that Diess has been called on the carpet and warned that he must change his management style or face possible termination.

Changing his management style appears to mean he should stop pissing off the works council. Cavallo is on record as saying, “We’re tired of hearing time and again that the works council is apparently only concerned with preserving the status quo.” She insists that all the workers and labor representatives are fully supportive of the proposals Diess has put forth to speed up the transition to electric vehicles, including a major rethink of how they build cars at its largest factory, in Wolfsburg.

The crux of Diess’ recent remarks is that Tesla will soon be building electric cars in Grünheide in much less time with fewer workers. Stripping away all the emotional content of his recent remarks, it should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer that you can’t compete successfully if your cars cost more to build than the cars your competitor is making. It’s as plain as the face on your nose, and yet Diess has been called to account for saying out loud what should be evident to everyone.

Sources tell Reuters that the committee is working to craft a position that will satisfy all parties — which means it will probably satisfy no one. Diess will be asked to change his management style, which is a little like asking a leopard to change its spots, while new board members will be announced, new assurances on job prospects for employees will be given, and new investment plans for Volkswagen Group will be put forth.

There are rumors — unfounded, unconfirmed, and uncorroborated — that if Diess is tossed overboard, he could wind up being tapped to run the automotive division of Tesla, which would allow Musk to focus his considerable talents on other things like SpaceX, energy storage, and tangling with Bernie Sanders on Twitter.

Part of Diess’ problems may stem from the fact that he is an outsider. From 1996 to 2015, he worked at BMW, where he was a member of its management board. Volkswagen, like any major corporation, has a culture of promoting from within. No doubt, bringing Diess in from outside the company — and from a competitor in the German auto industry at that — rankled lots of loyal Volkswagen managers who maybe thought they should have been promoted when the diesel cheating scandal hit in 2015 and Martin Winterkorn was given the heave ho.

Sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Has Diess learned his lesson? “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.

 
 
 
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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?

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