Ford’s heir apparent already runs its ruthlessly efficient leadership meetings

Don’t dare check your phone during this guy’s meetings.
Don’t dare check your phone during this guy’s meetings.
Image: Reuters/Joshua Lott
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Ford reportedly will soon announce that Mark Fields, the current COO and longtime heir apparent, will replace Alan Mulally as CEO, according to Bloomberg.

Mulally’s turnaround of Ford is legendary, but he’s confident enough in Fields that he already entrusted Fields with running the auto-maker’s essential weekly meeting.

A weekly meeting sounds minor. But it’s one of the core parts of a Ford culture that’s transformed dramatically over the past eight years.

Before Mulally became CEO in 2006, Ford’s top 35 executives would take five days a month for “meetings week” to discuss auto programs and performance.

The practice was costly in hours and effort. Mulally led a tough audit of the company’s time use. What replaced “meeting week” was a highly structured four- to five-hour weekly meeting for all senior executives called the Business Plan Review, now led by Fields.

The meetings have a few core principles:

  • Each executive must report consistent metrics on specific goals and on progress against the company’s plan. Data supporting initiatives or ideas are constantly reexamined for changes.
  • Executives signal progress on an initiative with a green color code. Setbacks are in red, and yellow signals caution.
  • Every one of Ford’s senior leaders from around the world attends or calls in.
  • Executives are expected to reveal problems as well as successes.
  • Data aren’t explained or finessed, but simply presented, and numbers are validated by pre-earnings audits.
  • Focus is important. Side conversations and looking at one’s phone aren’t permitted. “If someone has a side conversation, we just stop and we just look at them, and it’s amazing how it doesn’t happen again,” Mulally told the Wall Street Journal (paywall)

Early on, Fields tested whether it was truly acceptable to bring up problems in a Business Plan Review by announcing a production halt. (Finger pointing and politics had been endemic previously.) Mulally applauded because he was so frustrated that no one in a company losing billions could admit when they had issues.

One of Mulally’s big focuses is “institutionalizing” Ford’s good management practices. Whether that happens in the long run is very much up to Fields, should he take over. Mulally told The Wall Street Journal (paywall) that Fields is running the meeting “exactly the way I ran it.”

Fields was tremendously successful leading the company’s North American business. But he’s now set to inherit both his predecessor’s outsize legacy, and some real problems. The company has a small presence in China compared to rival GM, relies heavily on profits from North America, and needs to convince investors that it can adapt to a world with more electric and autonomous vehicles.

Mulally’s management structure was able to transform a company losing record-setting amounts of money. It now has to stand up to his absence.