Ford CEO Jim Hackett's ability to navigate COVID-19 storm rooted in Bo's team-first belief

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Long before Jim Hackett became CEO and president of Ford Motor Company, his leadership ability had started taking shape during his football career at Michigan.

While there in the late 1970s, he learned from his coach, Bo Schembechler, and “The Team, The Team, The Team,” went beyond a rallying cry and became deeply embedded in his soul. At Steelcase, the Grand Rapids company where Hackett was CEO, he learned from Bob Pew, the man who built the company into the world’s largest office furniture supplier.

Jim Hackett, Ford Motor Co. CEO and president

Hackett came out of retirement and returned to his alma mater as interim athletic director to navigate the department as it transitioned to a new leader. Along the way, he hired Jim Harbaugh as football coach and signed a lucrative deal with Nike. And now he leads Ford in this time of the COVID-19 global crisis.

He has worked through crises before, so has Ford and the country, and he felt well-equipped to guide the company, which is producing ventilators, respirators, masks and shields.

“I've had that influence and I want to take credit, so I give it to the people who gave it to me, not myself,” Hackett, referring to the leaders who shaped him, told The Detroit News in an interview Friday. “I already know I have these giants I'm standing on the shoulders of, and I already know what Ford expects. So it's easy. Not that the problem wasn't horrific, but it is easy to be motivated.”

He knew of Ford’s history during times of crisis, the automotive company having built incubators when infant mortality spiked in the early 1940s, and iron lungs for Polio victims and B-24 planes during World War II.

Ford CEO Jim Hackett played for Bo Schembechler

But what prepares anyone for a pandemic, one that shuts down nearly the entire workforce in the country and daily claims hundreds of lives?

When he went to get coffee during a meeting on Sept. 11, 2001 while at Steelecase, Hackett watched in horror the news of terrorist attacks in New York. He returned to the meeting room, turned the monitors to the coverage of the destruction and calmly instructed his team to think and prioritize, establish that their families were safe and then plot a course for the business in a time of crisis.

“That's part of the leadership thing is that you have to have people see through, not in a denial way because that's disastrous, but you've got to see through the crisis to say where there's an optimistic view of who we are,” Hackett said. “And, and so this pandemic, unlike any other time in history, it's more probably like a war.”

And in times like this, Hackett has drawn on his innate desire to fight in a crisis rather than take flight and avoid it. He also draws on the fact that he believes there always is optimism on the other side.

“I would just share this with you that you can't predict which way someone is going to react in that (situation),” he said. “In all the work I've done in this now, I'm surprised constantly who steps into it and who steps away from it. And I've been a guy who stepped into these problems, and I can tell you where it comes from, I think I know where it comes from when I was younger and some challenges in the family and witnessing my mom being upset.

“But then I would add to it, having three older brothers, it was kind of like there was constantly a re-sorting of priorities because of the competitiveness. So if you had a shallow notion in a tough time, it would just get knocked down really fast. So I kind of got to learn that before I was put in these leadership spots that this isn't gonna fly right now. Like you better cut your own pay. And it's the most important thing for everybody to realize what we're going through. I mean, all those kind of automatic things are seemingly there.”

Hackett, who turns 65 next week, lightened for a moment thinking about how it seemed he always stepped into leadership roles, including at Michigan, at difficult times.

“They’re difficult (situations) and, I'm not done, I'm not leaving tomorrow, but as this career ends, I don't want to do this again,” Hackett, who deferred half of his pay during the coronavirus crisis, said, laughing. “I mean, if it's determined I'm good at it, I don’t want that assignment anymore, because they really are demanding.”

Every day, Hackett hears from Beaumont Hospital CEO John Fox to get the updated numbers of COVID infections and deaths. And every day, he and wife, Kathy, watch the news and hear the stories of loss and stories of success and survival.

“And I cry every night,” Hackett said. “I can't not watch it because I need to feel what it's like.”

After hearing the early reports of the virus, Hackett emailed a physician friend at the Mayo Clinic, an individual who was head of Internal Medicine there and had accompanied Hackett to a Michigan football game last season. That contact led to Ford’s involvement in helping medical professionals with added equipment for patients and protective gear for hospital workers.

Hackett said he is envisioning how this pandemic will affect change in terms of doing business and building cars. Perhaps buildings will move toward thermal imaging as a way to detect individuals that may have fevers and illness. And in terms of vehicles, ways are being explored to provide interiors that fend off bacteria and germs.

“I've already started this work where we need to have antimicrobial steering wheels, and door handles, and things like that,” he said. “Long term, we ought to embed these in the surfaces you touch, which we can. So yeah, we're going to do that.”

While he steers Ford through the pandemic, Hackett hasn’t had much time to think about the return of sports. He certainly hasn’t put himself in a role he once held as Michigan’s athletic director.

But certainly, he would be focused on player safety and fan safety. Thinking everything will be OK is simply not enough.

“We’ve got to make sure it is OK,” Hackett said. “That's what I'd be looking for.”

And then he would study the economic drain of all the potential scenarios. After all, a budget without football would be devastating. He said one approach, if football is sidelined this season, would be to look at reducing the salary of coaches.

“There will be pressure in the system,” Hackett said. “There’s”all the demand and revenue (football) creates. When it doesn't create the revenue … I think what we're going to find is everyone's got to adjust for a year. And then things come back.”

Twitter: @chengelis