I spoke to a group of Ford dealers in Florida today, several of whom expressed real anxiety about Alan Mulally’s retirement and Mark Fields’ promotion to CEO of the iconic automaker. They are afraid. I told them they shouldn’t be.
Mulally’s retirement from Ford Motor Company is no cause for worry. Rather, it represents a powerful proof point of just how much Ford’s culture has changed under his leadership.
Orderly transfers of power are almost unheard of in Detroit. They are even more rare at Ford, where few top executives have even made it to retirement age. Remember Jacques Nasser? Bill Ford Jr. ousted him in a boardroom coup. How about Alex Trotman or Lee Iacocca?
When Mulally was hired to replace Bill Ford as CEO in 2006, there was little reason to believe he would fare any better, especially since he was an outsider.
Back then, Ford was infamous for its caustic corporate culture. As I describe in my book American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company, executives were more interested in protecting their own fiefdoms and advancing their own careers than they were in building a successful corporation. Some made business decisions that actively undermined their internal rivals at great cost to the company’s reputation and bottom line.
It wasn’t that they were bad people. It was just that they didn’t know any better. They were products of the culture they had come up in, and that culture was downright poisonous. These executives had drunk it in with the Ford Kool-Aid, and it was killing them and Ford Motor Company as surely as any pitcher of Guyana punch.
But Alan Mulally changed all that. He transformed a group of executives that was quite literally at each other’s throats into a team — a team that would turn Ford Motor Company around and show that at least one American automaker could pick itself up, shake off the rust, compete with the best in the world and win.
Now, it is time to show the world that Ford’s recent success is bigger than one man. And the only way to do that is for him to step down and pass the proverbial torch to another member of the team.
Ever since American Icon came out in the spring of 2012, I have been asked about Ford’s succession plan and what would happen to the company after he left. And I have always said a successful transfer of power would be the final proof that Mulally had succeeded in changing Ford’s culture.
“This smooth transition has been our vision from day one,” Mulally himself told me just minutes after his retirement was made public last week, adding that was an essential part of “ensuring our ‘One Ford’ plan continues” and “creating a profitably growing company benefitting everyone associated with our Ford.”
Mulally summed it up with one of his simple-yet-powerful trademark statements: “On plan!”
So, that is where Ford is today: “On plan.” And now it is up to Mark Fields to keep Ford “on plan” — to keep using the management system he learned from Mulally to build on the success that he is inheriting. It is important that this task fall to a member of Mulally’s own leadership team, and it is even better that it fall to someone who was already part of Ford’s senior leadership before Mulally was hired. Why? Because if Fields succeeds, it will demonstrate that Ford really has changed, and changed for good. It will demonstrate that Alan Mulally not only built a system at Ford that can ensure future success, but also that he has managed to do what no one before him could — change Ford’s culture.