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Driving Lessons

Driving Lessons

Sue Unger defied the odds to become the CIO of an automotive giant despite her gender and status as a technology outsider. Here's how she did it.

Reader ROI

  • How a former bean counter earned the respect of the IT group and became its boss
  • Why many consider Sue Unger to be a walking case study for leadership
  • What challenges lie ahead for the CIO of DaimlerChrysler and her company

Sue Unger did not have much respect for IT when she was a finance executive. Reactive, insular, tactical and unmotivated are just some of the more printable adjectives she used to criticise IT in those days.

Yet now the 54-year-old former bean counter presides over one of the world's largest IT groups at one of the world's largest companies, $US157 billion DaimlerChrysler. She has survived two waves of management purges since Germany's Daimler-Benz purchased Chrysler in 1998 - purges that saw the only other two female senior vice presidents there leave the company. Indeed, Unger has gained power since the merger in a company that has swept away Americans at its uppermost levels and replaced them with Germans. She is the rare American who rules on both sides of the Atlantic. But she speaks no German, has always lived in the suburban Detroit town where she grew up and has worked for exactly one company since graduating college in 1972: Chrysler. Worldly she is not. And her understanding of IT remains rooted in the conceptual rather than the technological.

This is atypical to say the least. The vast majority of CIOs remain techies who learn the business rather than businesspeople who learn technology. CIO's "State of the CIO 2003" survey found, for example, that just 14 per cent of more than 500 IT leaders had any relevant experience in finance before becoming CIO. Other core business functions, like manufacturing and sales, had even lower percentages, while engineering was slightly better, at 20 per cent. In the auto industry, the breakdown is no different. The last businessman to be CIO at a Big Three company, Ford's Jim Yost, who came from finance like Unger, lasted just a year before stepping aside for a techie. It should come as no surprise that Unger is also the first and only woman to be a Big Three CIO. Unger's startling success makes her a walking case study on leadership and what it takes for a woman and a technology outsider to become the boss of IT in one of the most competitive, macho industries in the world. How has she defied the odds? Several ways: excellent analytical and people skills honed by her years in finance, and a determination to learn every important aspect of the car business by taking assignments in every major area of Chrysler.

"She broke a lot of barriers by moving around a lot and not being afraid to take on assignments in different functional areas of the company," says Unger's mentor, Gary Valade, Chrysler's executive vice president of global procurement and supply. "No matter what the assignment was, she was always able to break it down to its essential elements and deal with those, and not get distracted by a lot of peripheral stuff."

But for Unger and her company, the biggest challenges may lie ahead. Chrysler, perennially third behind GM and Ford, is continuing to lose market share as competitors eat away at the categories that Chrysler's innovative designers made famous, such as the minivan and SUV. And Mercedes and Chrysler finished below average on JD Power and Associates' 2003 initial quality survey. (In 2003 tests, readers of US consumer watchdog magazine Consumer Reports put Mercedes' reliability in third place of worst-of-all car brands.) Analysts question whether DaimlerChrysler's quest to shore up a failing Chrysler has caused its chairman of the board of management, Jurgen Schrempp, to lose sight of what made his German gem great.

Indeed, one of the first questions a German journalist asked Schrempp at the company's annual press conference last (northern) autumn was whether he was considering selling Chrysler. Schrempp responded with a stern "No!" but the question - and larger issue of the merger's success - lingers on.

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