Business is a serendipitous combination of hazards and opportunities. Each day we embark on a journey through a jungle of possibilities; potentially positive, as well as negative. I recently reflected on my work with Ford Motor Company these past two years, and particularly the book I first read to understand Ford’s history and specifically the turnaround that took place during the recent recession, “American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company.”
For this post, I want to focus on Mulally and just make a few comments.
As I like to say, “As the leader goes, so goes the company.” And that was exactly the case with Mulally. If you really have an enthusiastic group of leaders, which Mulally eventually created, who believe in the big opportunity – amazing turnarounds are not only possible, they’re likely.
Mulally at Ford is an interesting case study. The outside business world was essentially saying, “Write’em (Ford) off, they’re done!”
But Mulally responded with leadership.
He changed the good ol’ boy culture at Ford to where the belief became, “No, no, what if we could produce this? What if we could come up with the Fusion? What if we could come up with zero emission automobile? What if we really get back to quality? What would happen?”
Mulally got that message out and his senior leaders aligned to it.
Leadership is about creating new belief systems; even in the face of unsettling odds. It’s about setting the tone and establishing the vision. Belief in what’s possible and why and generating true urgency around it.
When you look into the research of the automobile industry during that time, it can be difficult to understand what happened. My take is that Mulally pulled all of the American automobile companies up with him. Look what happened at General Motors. Look what happened at Chrysler – 30% increase in sales. All because, I really believe, Ford was one that stuck their head above the water and said, “We’re not taking the bailout – we can do this!” He seized the big opportunity before him. The idea that Ford could return to greatness! That the Ford Motor Co. – from frontline factory workers, to the senior leadership team, and everyone in between – with the right vision, and strategy, and urgency, could pull off this turnaround.
Mulally got his people to believe they could do it. Not just a small group of senior leaders. No, he got the company to believe it! And that is our job (you and I!), to see the value in dynamic opportunity when it presents itself. And that starts with a thorough communication process; messaging, pictures, stories, over-and-over again…it’s the commercial plop-plop, fizz-fizz. It’s creating a vivid picture of the future that can be seen by all and believed by all. It’s anchoring the new change into the culture and then going after higher ground.
As a leadership keynote speaker, the problem I’ve experienced with senior leaders is that they, generally speaking, are people who are great starters but not always great detail people. They cast a big vision and then they start to back off once they get momentum.
Most company visions are under-communicated by a factor of 10, if not 100. Your job is to not let that happen – your job is to keep connecting back to the vision or big opportunity, again and again, watching it, supporting it, resourcing it, and not losing momentum.
Many times, senior leaders start it, throw it to the next senior leader down the line, and then they get out of dodge. Human nature is, you need to be supported, you need to be resourced. Great leaders do that. Mulally did that and saved the American automobile industry.
As a leadership keynote speaker, many of my talks center on change management and the effectiveness of great leadership in affecting change. I’ve worked with countless organizations and I know the importance of recognizing a quality example of great leadership, and Mulally’s example is certainly one to take note of.