Planes, Cars and Cathedrals

Leadership insights from turnaround pro, president and chief executive of Ford Motor Company, Alan R. Mulally.

Leadership insights from turnaround pro, president and chief executive of Ford Motor Company, Alan R. Mulally.

Tell me about the first time you started managing somebody. 

I was an engineer at Boeing, and I was promoted to supervise other engineers. I had my thoughts about what that supervisory job should be. The engineer assigned to me would prepare his work, and I had to approve it.

So I thought that it was really important that it reflect my standards of quality. And 14 drafts later, he walked in and he quit. I said, “Why are you quitting?” He said, “Well, I think you’re a great engineer and I think you’ll be a good supervisor someday, but right now, this is just too much for me to be supervised this tightly.”

What did you learn from that?

It was a gem, because I really thought about why it happened. I realised very early that what I was really being asked to do was to help connect a set of talented people to a bigger goal, a bigger programme and help them move forward to even bigger contributions.

That was a different role from what was expected of me as an engineer. That experience stayed with me forever on what it really means to manage and lead.

Can you talk more about that?

The more senior your management position is, the more important it is to connect the organisation or the project to the outside world.

  • You know, how does this fit in with what we’re doing?
  • What is the real goal, the real mission?
  • What business are we in?
  • How do we pull together to have a comprehensive plan to create whatever we decided to do together?
  • How do you get everybody included, where everybody’s contributing and everybody knows what’s going on?

How do you get everybody to contribute?

I think the most important thing is coming to a shared view about what you’re trying to accomplish– whether you’re a non-profit or a forprofit organisation.

What are we? What is our real purpose? And then, how do you include everybody so you know where you are on that plan, so you can work on areas that need special attention. And then everybody gets a chance to participate and feel that accomplishment of participating and contributing.

Looking back over your career, have you learnt other important leadership lessons?

I’ve been very fortunate to be part of projects that are really big and broad. Airplanes are some of the most sophisticated designs in the world, four million parts flying in formation, and it involves hundreds of thousands of people all around the world creating these vehicles. And the same is true now at Ford, with our full product line.

So they’re just very big, large, compelling visions, and the biggest thing I’ve found is that the more everybody comes together on the real purpose, the higher order of that, the better.

Is the airplane really about an airplane or is it about getting people together around the world so they can find out how more alike they are than different? And is a car about just a driving experience or is it about safe and efficient transportation, and your family, and freedom?

And so the higher the calling, the higher the compelling vision that you can articulate, then the more it pulls everybody in. One of my favourite stories is an analogy where this reporter stops at a construction site and interviews three bricklayers.

He asks the first bricklayer, “What are you doing?” And he says, “Well, I’m making a living laying these bricks.” The reporter says: “Oh, that’s great. That’s very noble.” He asks the next bricklayer, “What are you doing?” And he says, “Well, I am practising the profession of bricklaying. I’m going to be the best bricklayer ever.” And the reporter asks the third bricklayer, “What are you doing?” And he says, “I’m developing a cathedral.” There is technical excellence and professionalism, but we all want to contribute to making a cathedral. And the more we feel that and we know what our part in it is, themore I think you can take the team performance to a whole new level of excellence.

What have you learnt to do less of over time?

I guess I’ve moved to a place where I’m really focused on four things. I pay attention to everything, but there are some things that are very unique to what I need to do as the leader.

I have to really come through on these. And one of them is this process of connecting what we’re doing to the outside world. I mean, we’re here to create a business of serving customers with the best cars and trucks in the world, so where is the world going? Where is the technology going? Where are the customers going? Where is the competition going?

A second focus for me is:

  • What business are we in?
  • What are we going to focus on?
  • What’s going to be our business?
  • Are we going to have a house of brands of vehicles?
  • Are we going to focus on the blue oval?
  • Are we going to be competitive on quality and cost and fuel efficiency?
  • Are we going to be best in class?
  • So what’s our point of view about the value proposition of our company?

The third one that I really focus on is balancing the near term with the longer term. And especially in the environment that we see today, where you absolutely want to keep investing for the future, even though you could invest less and make your business performance look better in the near term.

Do we have a plan that works in the near term and also creates value for the long term? And then I really focus on the values and the standards of the organisation. What are the expected behaviours? How do we want

to treat each other? How do we want to act? What do we want to do about transparency? How can we have a safe environment where we really know what’s going on? I’m the one who needs to focus on those four things, because if I do that, the entire team will have a collective point of view and an understanding of all four of those areas.

What’s your best career advice?

Don’t manage your career. Follow your dream and contribute. Think about just exceeding expectations of every job you’re being asked to do. Continually ask for feedback on how it’s going.

Ask everybody involved what you can do to do an even better job, and the world will beat down your door trying to ask you to do more and more.

I’ve never laid out a career, and frankly, I’d propose that you really don’t know what a job is until you’re in it. The most important thing is that you are open to really understanding what is expected, and also where you can make the biggest contribution.

The more humble you become, and the more honoured you are to serve, the greater your understanding is of what you can do to make a bigger contribution.

Let’s talk about hiring. I’ve just walked into your office. How would you interview me as a job candidate?

Your résumé tells a lot about what you’ve done. I would want to know what you’ve enjoyed about what you’ve done, what areas you feel comfortable in making a contribution right away, what areas have you struggled with, what you really want to do, and, especially, what your strengths are? And between what you’ve done and the way you communicate, I can just look in your eyes and tell a lot.

What about time management — how do you do it?

I guess my answer to that comes from the thought of having one integrated life. So I don’t have separate buckets of my life, like my family life or my personal life or my work life.

I just have one integrated schedule, and for as long I can remember, the kids and my wife have had access to my calendar. They all just build into the calendar whenever they need me.