(Article Originally Appeared On Forbes.com May 22, 2017 Author: Bryce Hoffman)
When Mark Fields was tapped to replace Alan Mulally as Ford Motor Co.’s new CEO back in the summer of 2014, my phone started ringing off the hook.
Reporters wanted to know what I, as the author of American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company, thought of Fields and his prospects. I told them all the same thing: “Alan has given Mark the skills he needs to run Ford and left him with a management system and strategic vision that can ensure the company’s future success.”
But I also offered an important caveat.
“It’s going to take a big man to sit on his hands and not try to fix what isn’t broken,” I warned. “That is what Ford needs, and time will tell if Mark Fields can do that.”
It turns out, he couldn’t.
For more than a year now, my sources on Ford’s senior leadership team have spoken of a gradual loss of focus and a growing concern the company was moving away from the clear and compelling vision and relentless implementation process that was Mulally’s legacy.
“Mark had to make it his own,” one of those sources told me today. “Unfortunately, his vision and his strategy were not as clear, nor as effective. Mark layered on a lot of things. Our priorities became clouded, and that really slowed decision making.”
This was precisely the danger I warned about back in 2014. I saw this threat so clearly not because of any special insight or sixth sense, but because the exact same thing had happened when Mulally left Boeing in 2006. When he left Seattle, the 787 program was screaming forward like a rocket aimed squarely at the heart of Europe’s Airbus. But as Mulally’s successor began dismantling his vaunted “Working Together” management system, the aircraft program veered off course.
In December of 2012, a few months after American Icon was published, Ford asked me to take questions from the company’s senior leadership team at its annual holiday party. One executive asked me, “If you could give us one piece of advice, what would it be?”
My answer was simple: “Look at Boeing, and don’t stop looking at Boeing — because if you look at Boeing, you’ll see what happens when a new leader tries to fix what isn’t broken.”
Mark Fields was standing in the front row when I said that. I’m not sure he heard me.
Not fixing what isn’t broken does not mean standing still. The business environment is in constant flux — today, more so than ever — and every company needs to constantly stress-test its strategies and make sure the course it has chosen remains the correct one. Mulally’s management system, which I have taught to dozens of companies around the world over the past four years, demands rigorous self-reflection and constant questioning.
“You need to always be working on the better plan,” he is fond of saying.
But challenging your own assumptions becomes more difficult the more successful your organization is. And that is another area in which Fields ran into difficulty.
Bill Ford was worried that might happen.
As I describe in my new book, Red Teaming: How Your Business Can Conquer the Competition by Challenging Everything, Ford’s executive chairman told me he was worried his company might become a victim of its own success. Why? Because success breeds complacency, and complacency leads organizations to stop questioning their own assumptions and challenging themselves to do better.
Companies can only remain successful if they remain agile and innovative, and while Fields deserves credit for helping Ford articulate a long-term strategy to broaden its focus from merely producing cars and trucks to becoming a high-tech “mobility company,” he missed some important opportunities to leverage the same sort of technological innovation in the short-term.
Think 3-D printing, advanced automation and artificial intelligence.
I am bullish about Ford’s new CEO, Jim Hackett, because he is someone who sees both the near-term and long-term opportunities in this sort of technology. But I also think he is a good choice because he understands that old maxim: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” He demonstrated that at Steelcase and at the University of Michigan.
Ironically, that was a favorite saying of Fields’ as well.
But Fields backed away from the Working Together culture Mulally worked so hard to instill at Ford, allowed needless bureaucracy to accrete itself like barnacles on Mulally’s streamlined management system and lost the laser-like focus on “One Ford” that allowed the Dearborn automaker to save itself while the other Detroit car companies went bankrupt and begged the American people for a bailout.
And that is why he had to go.
(Full Disclosure: I own shares in Ford)
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