Focus. VW’s new CEO must refocus the organization on one guiding principle: “Volks wagen – the people’s car.”

Whether Volkswagens’ board ousts Matthias Müller or just changes his position, there’s going to be a new person steering the company soon. Müller has failed to turn the corner on VW’s emission scandal. The new leader is going to have to make a dramatic statement fast to get the company back on track. That new leader must craft a new mantra and then embed it in the organization’s approach to acquiring, developing, encouraging, planning and transitioning people to make it stick. The best mantra is actually the company’s name which translates as folks venture.

As I’ve said throughout this series, executive onboarding is the key to accelerating success and reducing risk in a new job. People generally fail in new executive roles because of poor fit, poor delivery or poor adjustment to a change down the road. They accelerate success by 1) getting a head start, 2) managing the message, 3) setting direction and building the team and 4) sustaining momentum and delivering results.

The emissions scandal could not have happened if VW’s leadership actually believed in its stated values:

    • Social Responsibility
    • Sustainability
    • Partnership
    • Volunteering

The good news was that those values were relatively straightforward, easy to understand and remember. The bad news was that they weren’t real.

As part of their effort to recover, the company created a new set of “Values from us, values for us. Staff from all over the world were involved in developing the brand’s new corporate values – an important step forward on the journey to improving the corporate culture.”

This was a complete abrogation of leadership. Instead of inspiring and enabling others to do their absolute best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose, VW’s leaders essentially let everybody come up with whatever they thoughts was useful. Involving? Yes. Democratic? Yes. Practical? You tell me. Here’s what they came up with:

Values from us, values for us


Speak out

No fear of hierarchies


Across hierarchies



Focus on the real issue

Take a stand – less politics



Be an inventor

Examine habits

State my opinion


Try out new things

Decide, decide, decide.




Understanding customers around the globe

For the best product

High quality

For customer mobility

What our customers want, not what we want



Less discussion






Take responsibility

Do things





Less focus on status


Issue, not status

If people can’t understand, remember and follow five words (Social Responsibility, Sustainability, Partnership, Volunteering,) how are they going to understand, remember and follow 111 words? To be fair, VW would tell you their new values from us, values for us are about the six key bolded words above and the other words just elaborate on them. Let’s test that. Without looking back, how many of the six key bolded words can you remember? (Most won’t remember most.)

The tragedy is that Volkswagen’s name is a core message, mantra and guiding principle all rolled into one. At its best, VW owned “the people’s car.” The Beetle and Bus were iconic parts of everyday folks’ lives.

Few companies have it this easy. Everyone at Novo Nordisk knows they’re all about defeating diabetes. People at Coca-Cola focus on refreshing the world’s consumers. NASA in the 1960s was completely focused on putting a man on the moon.

VW’s new CEO has a fit risk. They have to fit with VW’s roots and help the organization get back to those roots. Whether it’s Herbert Diess or anyone else, they should make “people’s car” their mantra. They should believe in the value of the right cars for ordinary folks, talk about that and drive that one idea in everything they do.

VW forgot it’s five core values. No one is going to remember their new 111 words. But if the core guiding principle is “volks wagen”, no one at VW will ever forget it.