The Person You Want to Be – Part 2: Alan Mulally – CEO of Ford Motor Company


If part 1 of The Person You Want to Be had a theme, it was servant leadership. Ray Conner modeled the traits of a servant leader as well as anyone I’ve studied. And his successes prove that serving others, having compassion for those in your care, and working hard to provide each of them an opportunity to grow can help a leader climb to the top of even the largest organizations.

Part 2 is an epic turn-around story. And at the center of the story is the theme for today’s Simple Advice: Positive leadership. Alan Mulally led Ford Motor Company through what many analysts call the most impressive turn around in business history. And he did it in the middle of the worst economy since the Great Depression. How? With laser focus and clarity, and with a positivity that was contagious.

Alan Mulally was well-known for leading the turn-around at Boeing in the early 2000s. It’s what put him at the top of the list when Ford was looking for the right leader to do the same thing. When Ford brought Mulally in as the new CEO, the company was losing billions of dollars a year. Most people close to the situation, both inside and outside the organization, felt like he was the only option, and the last hope the Ford family had to save the company and their legacy as an American icon.

To make a 400 page story very short, Mulally was hired and given the reigns along with the full support of the board of directors and the Ford family. Basically the message was “you did it at Boeing, do it here too please”.

And he did it.

Full turn around in 3 years.

From losing billions of dollars a year (I believe the low point was $13Billion in one year) to a nearly $3Billion profit.

In 3 years.

Thousands of employees, a team of leaders entrenched in old habits, and a failing company with all the world’s eyes looking in on every financial detail.

And one shot to get it right.

Let that all sink in, and then add in the mix that he did this as the country and the automotive industry entered the worst economy since the Great Depression. Sales of new cars dropped off the face of the earth. Consumer confidence was at rock bottom. And he led the leadership and team members at Ford through it all with a positivity that had to be inspiring to everyone around him. It was for me, just following the story.

The simple advice extracted from this story is that a positive leadership style can help you lead your organization through change, uncertainty, or sheer chaos. For Mulally, there were a few things he brought to the table that helped him lead Ford through this tough time…

a clear vision,

a detailed plan,

a very necessary and effective meeting rhythm,

and the focus to stick to it all, no matter what was thrown at him,

…but positivity is what held it together. And that’s key for any new leader as you guide your team through a tough situation.

The other thing he did well that was sort of glossed over in the book was something that I also believe is crucial during times of change. He remained visible and accessible to the people. Times were tough for shareholders and the Ford family, but they were even tougher for the working class employees of Ford. There were layoffs and union negotiations and major restructuring. Ford dropped everything from the automobile lineup but Ford and Lincoln, cutting entire divisions and closing entire facilities. But he remained accessible and was never too important or too busy to talk to the people who continued to work hard for him through the changes. And that takes an entirely different level of positivity and courage.

I recommend the book (click the link above), because my little short story here doesn’t do it justice, but there’s enough here to lean on in times of change, as you lead your team with positivity and clarity that will help them want to follow you.


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