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AutoNation CEO's Leadership Advice For Women: Think Possibilities

September 23, 2019 00:00 AM UTC
- Updated September 25, 2020 17:17 PM UTC

Cheryl Miller is the first female CEO at AutoNation, the world's largest auto dealership, and Fortune 500 company.

Cheryl, I guess it's not easy to take over from a person like Mike Jackson. He's a powerful, charismatic CEO. He's been running AutoNation for more than 20 years. What are you doing to put your personal leadership stamp on the company? Susie, the way I think about my personal leadership stamp is really the forward look of the company and really empowering the next generation of leaders. Business is moving extremely quickly. There's a lot of disruption out there. So really leading that next wave into the future from working with a diverse group of associates to autonomy, to future mobility, and serving our customer in digital. So that's the era that I'm going to be shepherding in from both a leadership style as well as from a business perspective. This is the first time you've had the job of CEO. So how often do you turn to Mike and ask for advice? And given that he's still executive chairman, how often does he come to you and give you some behind the scenes advice and suggestions? So the great thing, Susie, with Mike and I is we were next door office neighbors for over five years. So we really understand each other's working styles. So periodically, I'll stop by with a question or Mike will stop by with a comment or question for me. And so we have a really good working rhythm as needed. I'm running the company. He's great with that. We're fully aligned with that. He, obviously, is helping run the board as chair. But we have a really good back and forth on key issues when needed. So when you do get advice from him, what's the best advice you've gotten? One of the great things with Mike Jackson is if you're not early, you're late. And so really the discipline to time management. So Mike Jackson is the master of that, and that's something, making sure that you're spending enough time with your customers, enough time with your associates, and on the things that really matter-- and so that's some of the best advice I've gotten from Mike. Now, the timing of your appointment as CEO was unusual. At first, AutoNation selected Carl Libert, who's an outsider with very little experience in the auto business, to be Mike's successor as CEO. But then four months later, the board switched gears and asked you to step in. How did you feel about that? I felt like it was a great moment to show resilience, right? And so I have worked at the company for a while. I've leaned very heavily operationally. I certainly was in the CFO role before. And my goal has always been to work well for the company. So whatever is needed to help lead the company into the future, I've always been there for. And so I was thrilled at the opportunity to lead 26,000 associates. And I've worked closely with the board and was next door neighbors with Mike before, so very familiar. And I'm really excited about the future. It was a surprise announcement, so what are you doing to get shareholders, employees, even Wall Street comfortable with this big change now that you're the boss? I think one of the nice signs when you take over is what did the stock do? So when the stock's up double-digits on the day of the announcement, it's a nice start. And that feels good for associates as well. Tell us about your first 30 days on the job. What have you been doing? So the first day was earnings day, and that's something I've done for years. Right after that, we did associate town halls. I met with our leadership team. I've been out in stores. And we're really focused on running today's business and also focused on business in the future. So we're working on our brand extension strategies. We're working on our strategic relationships with key partners as well. So the nice thing about having been in the business is that I know it well. It's a business that I love. And so a chance to really just hit the ground running was something that I was really excited about. I heard at that town hall, you got a standing ovation. How did that feel? It was great. So when you look out in an audience of people that you know well and you get the standing ovation, it was pretty neat. Mike was standing as well. It felt very good that validation that you saw in the stock price, but also with our associate team as well. So just about everybody describes you as a relationship person-- you have this personal touch, whether it's with employees or with customers. But how would you describe the way you lead? What's your leadership style? Engaged. I love to be engaged. So I walk around. I like to see what's going on firsthand. I like to hear from customers. I like to hear from associates. So on the day of my announcement as president and CEO, I got a lot of amazing emails. And the ones that meant a lot to me were people that were in amazing roles that used to work with me or work for me-- some within the company, some at other places where they've gone on domestically or overseas on to great things in their career. And that's something that's important to me. The hallmark you leave as a leader is what you do for other people. So many young women aspire to be a successful business leader like you, and maybe one day to be the CEO of a big Fortune 500 company. What's the most important advice? I always say, listen. So make sure you're listening and learning. Make sure you're working hard. And don't be afraid. So one of the things-- if an opportunity presents itself, don't be afraid to take it. Always be thinking about possibilities-- not limitations, but possibilities.