Ford gets its succession planning right with Alan Mulally and now Mark Fields

Ford seems to have managed the transition from dynastic leadership well, beginning with the appointments of Alan Mulally and now Mark Fields. The appointment even succeeded in exorcising the ghost of the anti-Semitism of its founder, a Century earlier

My inclination is to test leadership stories for their hidden side. So this feel-good story of leadership success appeared to require rigorous testing. After all, I reasoned, The Ford PR department would want to project a good-news story. I was pleasantly surprised. For once they had little need for any great display of the dark arts of their profession.

A balanced scorecard

I first came across the story in The Detroit News, which is a bit like going to the Vatican for a balanced scorecard on the Pope’s leadership achievements. The News [May 1st 2014] tells how close the mighty Ford Empire was to extinction in 2006. The last throw was for the dynasty to euthanize itself and appoint Alan Mulally, a well-chosen Ford insider, but not a scion of the Ford family:

”We’ve had very few, maybe ever, a planned and smooth transition, all the way back to my great-grandfather,” William Ford Jr. said from the [Corporate headquarters, Thursday April 30th]. Mulally, 68, came to Ford from Boeing Co. in September 2006 to engineer one of the greatest business turnarounds in American history. When he retires July 1, and Fields, 53, assumes the CEO position for which he was passed over eight years ago, it will truly be the final act of Mulally’s historic reign in Dearborn.

Leadership chops

Other articles recounted a similar tale of two great leadership appointments. The headline in the Autonews article suggested that Fields has ‘the leadership chops’ which roughly translated is leadership presence and ability’ to silence critics

Critics?

Criticism of Fields has been mild, and Mostly about him being an MBA and a Harvard MBA. And a hint that he has been known to square-up physically in meetings when things go wrong.

The exorcism

There were a few mentions of the fact that Ford had put to rest the anti-Semitism that haunted the company since the days of its founder Henry Ford. My source, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has the same reputation for balanced reporting as the as the mythical Vatican agency with its gleeful headline “Take that, Henry Ford! Car company goes from anti-Semitic founder to new Jewish COO” on Fields’ promotion in 2012.

The succession plan

Bill Ford’s comments showed more than a hint of satisfaction at the succession planning that went so well.

“From the first day we discussed Ford’s transformation eight years ago, Alan and I agreed that developing the next generation of leaders and ensuring an orderly CEO succession were among our highest priorities,” Ford said. “Mark has transformed several of our operations around the world into much stronger businesses during his 25 years at Ford. Now, Mark is ready to lead our company into the future as CEO.”

Behind the headlines

Behind the headlines there are interesting issues to be considered. Is the story just great leadership from the time the last Ford in the dynasty,saw it was time to introduce an outsider? Then great leadership by Mulally in turning around the behemoth organization, and now the prospect of a third great leader, Mark Fields at the top? If so, we have a traditional account in the spirit of natural born leaders. Or again, we might wish to examine the story as an example of distributed leadership, which is more likely to defuse power struggles and encourage corporate morale.

For Fordists everywhere

Those wishing to, can purchase from the Detroit News a framed photo of Alan Mulally shaking hands with Mark Fields, with a beaming Bill Ford looking on.

To be continued

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