The power of Alan Mulally’s relentless positivity
Alan Mulally retired on July 1 as CEO of Ford Motor Co., credited with saving an American icon from bankruptcy and returning it to pretty fabulous profitability.
Though few of us will be rewarded with the accolades and many millions of dollars showered on Mulally, we can all learn from his approach in our professional lives — and maybe our personal lives.
I’m not claiming to be a Mulally expert — more of a watcher and admirer.
During my tenure overseeing business news at the Detroit Free Press from 2006-2011, my staff intensively covered Mulally, who took over at Ford in September 2006.
He is charmingly down-to-earth and the most irrepressibly positive big-time business or political leader I’ve encountered. Unlike most top executives, particularly in the auto industry, Mulally comes across as unimpressed with himself.
My first encounter with him came shortly after he was named Ford chief executive. He came in Ford’s typical caravan of black SUVs with his security and public relations team to the Free Press offices, which, like Detroit, were a bit shabby.
I wanted to hustle him through the newsroom, over the ratty carpet and past the desks stacked with towers of paper and fast-food remains, and get him to the much nicer publisher’s conference room as quickly as I could.
But with his infectious smile and curiosity, he paused to read the plaques recognizing the Free Press’ Pulitzer prizes. A Kansas Jayhawk fanatic, he was enthralled by the historic sports pages framed in the hallway leading to the conference room. Other leaders visiting us usually seemed either self-absorbed or bored; he seemed almost overjoyed to be there.
The day he was hired at Ford, he said he drove a Lexus, Toyota’s luxury brand, and considered his LS430 to be the best-built car available. To the Detroit media, this was a horrid gaffe. But Mulally’s message and vision were to expect the best, to be open and to be honest.
Isn’t that better than blowing smoke and settling for being a runner up?
Mulally printed business cards for everyone at Ford and handed them out freely to outsiders, articulating his “One Ford” vision. It boiled down the company’s business plan on one side and employees’ expected behaviors on the other.
The clarity was elegant.
Some managers issue exhaustive checklists and then launch a new effort and a new checklist. When they are lost in the woods, they run from one ray of light to the next and, at some point, lose their compass. That’s not how Mulally engineered one of the great American business turnarounds of our time. He knew his true north and kept everyone’s vision focused there.
When Mulally took over, Ford was staring into the abyss of ruin, about to report an annual loss of $12 billion. That circumstance — and company Chairman Bill Ford Jr., Henry Ford’s great-grandson — gave Mulally the freedom and authority to implement his vision.
Early this year, the company reported its 19th consecutive profitable quarter.
A former colleague of mine summed up Mulally’s style this way: “Relentless positivity and team building — done with simple, even basic, internal communications marketing — matched with relentless realism and a high level of global business competence.”
Mulally described his approach in an interview with McKinsey & Co., the influential consulting firm:
“At the most fundamental level, it is an honor to serve — at whatever type or size of organization you are privileged to lead, whether it is a for-profit or nonprofit. … Starting from that foundation, it is important to have a compelling vision and a comprehensive plan.
“Positive leadership — conveying the idea that there is always a way forward — is so important, because that is what you are here for — to figure out how to move the organization forward.
“Critical to doing that is reinforcing the idea that everyone is included. … When people feel accountable and included, it is more fun.”
The same thing is proven to happen in education — schools with principals who expect every child to succeed and every teacher to make that happen end up with better test scores and better morale.
In the work world in particular, but also in our personal lives, it’s easy to fall into cynicism of varying degrees, to make fun of the latest effort to move forward. It can be comfortable to gripe about the boss’s optimism while secretly hoping an initiative fails so you don’t have to change.
Bill Ford Jr., who fired himself as CEO to hire Mulally, experienced this, saying at one point that his initiatives were “slow-walked” by his top executives. The culture at General Motors headquarters (not dealerships) was recently criticized in a report on its years-long failure to fix a potentially deadly ignition switch problem. The report described the “GM salute” — crossing the arms and pointing toward others, “indicating that the responsibility belongs to someone else, not me.”
I prefer the Mulally approach. Change is uncomfortable. Progress is hard. Success is fun.
Randy Essex is editor of the Post Independent.
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