Howes: Fields’ Ford failure offers lesson for successor

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Alan Mulally is credited with saving Ford Motor Co. But planning his own succession? Not so much.

Less than three years after Mark Fields replaced the superstar CEO, the protégé is out of a job. And Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr. is implicitly criticizing Mulally’s choice for slow decision-making and for failing to quicken a corporate metabolism amid revolutionary change in the auto industry.

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Into the breach steps Jim Hackett, the retired Steelcase Inc. CEO and former interim athletic director at the University of Michigan. Among his charges: restoring the culture of teamwork Mulally implemented and left to Fields, only to see it begin to wither as a sagging share price and flattening earnings upped pressure on the c-suite and revealed bad old habits.

Ford is proving to be no exception, despite the claim that Mulally “fixed” its Byzantine culture. Repressed would probably be a more accurate verb given the eruption of the familiar stressfulness, lack of clarity and rumor-mongering that scream “Old Ford” to whoever knows what the term means.

If the past few months are any indication, the Blue Oval was beginning to lose its way as building tension fueled speculation about which Fields lieutenants would be cashiered in a planned management shakeup the board halted in favor of ousting the CEO.

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None of them, as it turns out, save a communications chief legendary for his duplicity. Instead, Bill Ford and the directors are re-loading with a new CEO whose stocks in trade include pushing the organization to think and act like customers and empowering lower levels people to influence decisions.

Can Hackett change the culture, as Mulally was reputed to have done? Or just repress it again for as long as he sits in the corner office preaching teamwork? The answer will go a long way to determining whether Ford can win the next phase of a long game founder Henry Ford began in 1903.

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Reversing the tide of “Old Ford” negativity beginning to ooze again from Ford’s senior leadership — and rallying the team — should be tailor-made for a guy Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh calls “hungry to make the team better.”

He should know. The question is whether the teamwork ethos Hackett honed during 20 years as Steelcase CEO, and imported to the Michigan Athletic Department before recruiting Harbaugh, can be re-created in a century-old automaker accustomed to executive backbiting and palace intrigue.

“If I have any impact on this business, you will not feel competition between two people,” Hackett said. “It’s a team.” In an interview with The Detroit News, he added: “We’ll pivot quite quickly away from any sentiment you’re picking up there.

“I wouldn’t blame that all on Mark. It’s the way that emergent forces make people feel when things are changing that creates ambiguity and unsettledness.”

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Few places is that more true than inside the “frozen middle” of Detroit’s automakers. They’re American industrial archetypes built around hierarchical structures, top-down management, the kind of score-settling that always produces winners and losers — and all of it can revert to the mean under the right mix of tough circumstances.

“This is a people person,” Jim Keane, Hackett’s successor at Steelcase, said of his longtime boss. “He cares about people, he hires the best talent and he builds the best teams and he teaches them a lot.”

Mulally was a teacher, too. He taught executives to expose problems so they could be fixed instead of hiding them to spare embarrassment. He also taught teamwork, working to the plan and adjusting it whenever conditions changed. He taught that smart leadership deals with the world as it is, not as they want it to be.

“I didn’t feel the Old Ford so much as I felt the stress,” Bill Ford said in an interview with The News. “When Alan was here he engendered such a sense of can-do and optimism. And maybe we lost a little of that.

“Jim is such a values-centered CEO, and the culture of the company will mean so much to him, as it does to me, I really feel in that regard we’re going to be in good shape.”

That, of course, remains to be seen. It is true that Bill Ford and the company’s directors are moving on the CEO at a time of financial strength, a point the executive chairman emphasized in an interview with The News and his remarks Monday to a news conference.

It is also true that record financial performance during Fields’ brief tenure proved insufficient to meet investor expectations, to deliver share performance or to improve the market’s receptivity to the pitch that Ford can have one metaphoric foot in the present auto industry and the other in the autonomy-and-mobility future.

The evidence so far is that investors aren’t buying it. The sales job facing Hackett is equal parts internal and external, the challenge to better articulate where Ford thinks it needs to head and how it proposes to get there.

Mulally did it by endlessly repeating his One Ford mantra and delivering on it from a very low, post-Great Recession base that made his upside gains outsized. Fields didn’t have that luxury, and neither will Hackett and the guy who hired him.

Finally, Fields’ premature flameout is a cautionary tale about the importance of succession planning to every CEO: who you, and the directors, groom and select as a replacement is as much a commentary on your tenure as the performance itself.

Hackett, the guy who fired Brady Hoke and replaced him with Harbaugh, will get his chance, too. If he does his job right, he’ll be more successful on that score than Mulally looks right about now.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.