First British woman CEO of Citroën

16 March 2018

She is the first Brit to take the helm of French automotive manufacturer Citroën − and the first woman. Linda Jackson speaks to Bradford Keen about four decades spent in the automotive industry, what makes a leader worth following, the value of meritocratic employment and those times when the men in the room failed to realise that she was the boss.

Linda Jackson grew up without ever having a dream career path and she certainly didn’t have ambitions in the automotive industry.

“I can’t say that when I was four, I was madly interested in cars. I was a lot more interested in ballet dancing,” she admits.

Motoring may not have steered Jackson’s childhood fantasies, but after receiving her own car – a Mini on her 18th birthday – the Citroën CEO soon appreciated the freedom a set of wheels afforded.

Jackson landed a holiday job at Rover, now Jaguar, doing basic office admin. She loved the company and the environment so much that she turned down a place at the University of Sussex, where she would have studied teaching.

“Within the two months I was there [at Rover], I saw lots of different aspects of the automotive industry and really liked it; obviously, because I have spent my entire career in it,” Jackson says. “It’s fascinating in the sense that the end product is something that is not a commodity, but a real object that people buy because they choose to say something about themselves. It’s a personal choice.”

Moving up the ranks at Rover proved a wise choice. Sponsored by the company, Jackson completed her MBA at Warwick University in her hometown of Coventry, UK.

Eventually, she was headhunted by Citroën UK in 2005 for the position of finance director. Four years later, she took the same job at Citroën in France before returning as managing director of UK and Ireland between 2010 and 2014.

During this time, she boosted market share and volume with a 6% increase in sales, even while a struggling PSA Peugeot- Citroën received a multi-billion bailout from the French Government, Chinese company Dongfeng and existing investors.

Jackson’s experience and solid achievements within a shaky business context took her back to Paris in June 2014 to sit in the driving seat as Citroën CEO.

It’s been an exciting career so far and the next ten years in the automotive industry are set to be characterised by significant change. She lists autonomous and electric vehicles as obvious drivers of transformation, as well as how customers’ demands will continue to change and shape development.

It’s no longer just about making a vehicle for people to buy. The future of the automotive industry, if other markets and sectors are anything to go by, might mean fewer people buy cars and lease them instead. These days, it’s about becoming mobility providers.

The group’s Free2Move app, for instance, aggregates car sharing companies on one platform, offering stationary, free-floating and peer-to-peer sharing options.

Tied to mobile is social, and Jackson cites social media as a powerful force for improvement. Citroën Advisor is based on the same model as popular social service TripAdvisor. It gives customers the chance to rate products, dealerships and, soon, even salespeople.

“It’s exciting because it is completely new,” Jackson says. “Five or six years ago, you wouldn’t have had that but, because of social media, it’s a whole new aspect of advocacy. We all want a third party’s view. It becomes essential for an automotive business to change and that is one of the ways we have evolved. You have to keep evolving.”

Core leadership principles

Acknowledging your debt to colleagues is a sentiment often expressed by leaders, but Jackson nevertheless maintains that her current team, and others she’s managed, have been essential to her success.

“As you move further up the ladder, you have to be able to rely on your team because you can’t manage everything,” she says. “You have to be able to delegate and, in order to delegate, you have to trust people. You need to have the right people there.”

When Jackson started managing teams, her inclination was to do it all herself. It would take too long to explain tasks and processes to other people, she reasoned. “You almost try to micromanage everything because you think it’s a whole lot easier.”

She quickly realised that this approach was unsustainable: “In my role, you can’t be a specialist in everything. Superman and Superwoman don’t exist. So what you have to do is delegate.”

In my role, you can’t be a specialist in everything. Superman and Superwoman don’t exist.

Successful delegation comes from building dependable relationships with team members and directing them in appropriate ways. They need to be given responsibility so they can deliver results. If they do a great job, you praise them. If they don’t, you need to be firm and tell them why it was not good enough.

Acting as a professional mentor to others, Jackson is often asked what type of management style is best to adopt. Her answer is rather biblical: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

“A lot of people think, ‘I like to be given responsibility and freedom to do things. I don’t like to be micromanaged’. In 99% of the cases, people will say that. Therefore, apply that reasoning to your own management style.”

Managers may have served under a megalomaniacal boss, but it doesn’t mean they need to follow the same path. “Manage them as you want to be managed,” Jackson emphasises. “That’s the way I have done it.”

The glass ceiling

While it is rare to see a woman CEO in the automotive industry, Jackson says she has never been discriminated against because of her gender.

The leader cites the “usual times” in the past when she has been in a meeting and the delegates suggest not starting until the boss arrives, only to tell them she is the person they’re waiting for. But that doesn’t happen much anymore. Although she still occasionally meets people who, when finding out she works at Citroën, ask if she’s in the marketing department.

“I can’t say ‘I didn’t get a job because I was a woman’. That has never happened to me,” Jackson says.

“I have been fortunate, but I have worked my way up from the very bottom of the ladder all the way to the top. Because there are not many women [in the industry], it has been an advantage. If you do a good job, you are remembered. It’s not a very politically correct thing to say, but it is the truth.

“It’s a shame there are not more women. I’ve had to manage, as all women do, life between family and career. Men will say they have to, but it’s slightly more difficult for women – although that is probably not popular with men.”

Jackson has noticed that there is a self-imposed pressure for women to do more, work longer hours and prove themselves. After achieving certain professional successes – which depend on plenty of hard work and “being in the right place at the right time” – it becomes a question of balancing work and life. She spends as much as 60% of her time travelling.

While she cites excellent teams beneath her, Jackson’s success comes from her hard work, loyalty to companies that served her well and delivering measurable results. This is why she is not a fan of enforced employment quota systems.

“I wouldn’t want to be in this role because I had filled a quota, and I don’t believe anybody does,” Jackson says. “If you speak to women in high management positions, they want to be there because they’ve proved themselves and got the results, otherwise you lose all credibility.”

I wouldn’t want to be in this role because I had filled a quota, and I don’t believe anybody does.

However, Jackson is eager to change the perception that men dominate the automotive industry and, in order to achieve, one needs to be technically trained. “I’m not an engineer – I have a finance and sales background,” she says. “There is a whole range of things you can do in an automotive industry whether it is marketing, public relations, HR, digital, social media of course, there is engineering and styling. There are women running factories.”

Mentoring and role modelling is also important to show women can succeed, not just in the automotive industry, but in most sectors in which they are under-represented. Within PSA Peugeot-Citroën, there are women’s forums as well as clinics for looking at new car models.

Change happens, even if it takes time. In 2005, when Jackson joined Citroën, she’d never have thought a Brit would have been hired to run a French company and she certainly couldn’t have imagined that person being a woman. But the industry has changed and society evolves. Women will begin to fill more roles as this shift continues.

“There is no glass ceiling anymore, you can do well in business,” Jackson asserts. “But it’s about making it easier for women to be able to manage the balance between work and family life.”

Citroën allows some of its staff to work from home several days a week, which is a start in achieving these better conditions, but “there is a whole range of things that can improve”.

“Hopefully the media can play a part,” Jackson says, “and even this article can help show that you can start at the very bottom and work your way up. If you work hard and get the results, you can do whatever you want. At the end of it, you need to believe in yourself.”

The importance of self-belief

Jackson says women need to have confidence in their own abilities. Added to this, she stresses, is the need to develop a strong support base. This may be having family that understands the demands of senior management roles. It could also be finding the right mentor so that when things go wrong, there is someone to talk to about it.

Anyone asking Jackson for career advice would hear the same: It’s about self-belief. There have been times, like when Jackson accepted the CEO role – which happened immediately in the office of PSA Peugeot Citroën head, Carlos Tavares – and suddenly thought, “Oh my God, what have I got myself into? But everyone does that and then you think, ‘Of course I can do it’.”

While Jackson never sat daydreaming about being the chief executive of a major car manufacturer, she has found an industry that inspires her and that success requires hard work. Perceptions need to shift in the industry to make it more accessible to women, but with role models and mentors such as Jackson, the glass ceiling is being shattered.

Linda Jackson