By Peter M. De Lorenzo
Detroit. After the smoothest transition in the history of the Ford Motor Company – not an insignificant thing by any measure – Mark Fields has officially been given the reins of one of America’s industrial icons. A 26-year veteran of Ford, Fields has been groomed for this moment and the coming years ahead by a combination of invaluable, toughening experience covering the broad scope of Ford, and an industrial Ph.D. program of sorts when he had the opportunity to work closely with Alan Mulally.
The impact of the last seven years on Mr. Fields has been life altering, because the impact of Mr. Mulally on the Ford Motor Company, although well documented, has been incalculable. Brought in by Bill Ford out of frustration with the sheer inertia of the Ford bureaucracy and the fact that the company was in precarious financial shape, Mulally basically taught the entire management team how to work together and to focus on the most important things, and did so with an ebullient style that transformed the company.
And Mark Fields was there every step of the way, watching, listening and studying. It wasn’t that Fields was a raw talent that needed seasoning, because Fields brought considerable chops of his own to the table, with a depth and breadth of experience that was unmatched within the company. But there was a level of subtlety and finesse to the way Alan Mulally conducted himself and the business of the Ford Motor Company that was eye opening, especially to Mr. Fields.
The subtleties of Mulally’s style weren’t something that Fields encountered in his advanced business school lessons, or in his travels through the labyrinth of the Ford corporate system. Mulally’s innate ability to get people to see the big picture, understand the ramifications of every decision, and to focus on the crucial issues that mattered most is now legendary, in the truest sense of that word. But the effervescent Kansan also brought a steely-eyed toughness to the proceedings that most outside observers missed, and he did it with a directness wrapped in an unfailing kindness that moved massive egos off of the dime, every time.
And that had a deep impact on Mark Fields. In fact for someone like Fields, who in the past has brandished his Jersey Boy toughness in an instant, it may have been the most important lesson of all.
For all of its rough-hewn sensibilities, all of its boorish braggadocio, all of its relentless 24/7 slog that consumes everything and everyone immersed in it, the automobile business is about people. It’s about getting people to work together. It’s about getting people to lift their eyes up a few degrees so they can see over the top of their silos and understand that focused attention to detail in pursuit of a common goal can produce tremendous results for all concerned.
In essence, it’s the Art of Leadership in its most basic form.
That’s the true genius of Alan Mulally and his impact on the Ford Motor Company, and that’s the ultimate lesson that Mark Fields will take with him going forward.
Make no mistake, following an American corporate legend will be no easy task for Fields, but then following in the footsteps of a legend never is, no matter if it’s in business or in sport.
But this a brand-new day for the Ford Motor Company, and Mark Fields grasps this fact unequivocally. Alan Mulally took Ford at its worst and refurbished it, refocused it and reloaded it for The Future. It was simply one of the biggest and most successful level sets in American corporate history, but that chapter is now closed. The next chapter will be written by Fields and his executive team, and the people of Ford.
Some observers have concluded that the Fields agenda translates into keeping the momentum and practices established by Alan Mulally, that if he does that it would be enough. And they would be wrong.
Mark Fields understands that the level set of the company is just that, and that he needs to step on the gas – hard – in order for the Ford Motor Company to compete well into the future.
Look for Fields and his team to step-up the product focus, with the launch of the new Mustang and the aluminum-intensive F-150 just the beginning of a series of new products that will keep coming at a prodigious rate. Product excellence is essential to the Mark Fields mission, and you can expect fun to drive and outstanding all-around performance to be essential parts of the product equation too. All very good things.
And expect Lincoln to keep on its upward trajectory under Fields as well. He believes in the brand, and he believes that the potential for growth for Lincoln – especially in Asia – is genuine and that the dollars being spent on future product development will yield tremendous results. Given what I know about what’s coming, I expect big things for Lincoln as well.
And you can expect Ford under Fields to continue to be aggressive in Asia and India, continuing its exponential growth and driving Ford profitability to new heights in the future.
But there will be tough issues for Mr. Fields to contend with on the horizon too.
The upcoming union contract talks could prove to be difficult, and no one really knows how they will go, as prognostications at this point are worthless. Suffice to say they will be challenging for the entire industry.
And despite all of Alan Mulally’s accomplishments, some deeply entrenched bureaucratic silos remain at Ford, or as I call it: The Land of the Intransigent and Intractable. It has been a struggle for every Ford CEO to break down these silos and it will continue to be a struggle for Mark Fields and his team. The incredible inertia at these huge auto companies can never be underestimated. It can be contained and controlled, but you can’t really stop it, and it’s always a factor.
But the biggest threat to Mark Fields going forward? Complacency. It’s the one thing that has a life of its own inside these corporate bureaucracies, and it’s the one thing that can stall momentum if it’s allowed to fester.
Complacency in thought is dangerous unto itself, but complacency in product can be fatal.
Mark Fields understands this implicitly and that’s why he will keep his team focused on the tasks at hand, in order to keep that complacency as but a distant speck in the company’s rearview mirror.
Yes, it’s tough following a legend, and Mark Fields is about to find that out. The comparisons will be endless, the knee-jerk assessments will multiply exponentially, and the doubters will always be hurling negativity from the sidelines.
But the Mulally legacy is secure, the Art of Leadership has been passed on, and a new era at the Ford Motor Company has begun.
Mark Fields is the right leader, at the right time, at the right car company.
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.