For much of our country, the battle to survive economically during the COVID-19 crisis is every bit as real as the war we’re waging against the virus. Entering what specialists have termed a “wartime economy,” many of today’s leaders are looking to wartime history for guidance. But today’s economic crisis, Oxford University’s Daniel Susskind warns, is framed by entirely different circumstances:
Perhaps, rather than lessons offered by wartime leadership giants, which focus on rebuilding business in a decimated economy, we would do well to study a more recent leadership approach: rethinking.
When Alan Mulally took over as Ford Automotive’s CEO in September 2006, the company was facing certain bankruptcy. Within the space of a single year, Mulally reduced its loss margin by $10 billion. By 2008, less than two years after he took the helm, Ford was profitable, again. At the heart of this success was what Mulally considers his most important contribution to the company: his “One Team” approach.
Every Thursday, Mulally held a business plan review meeting, or BPR, with all of his team leaders. Attendance was mandatory. In the days preceding the meetings, Mulally would engage employees from all levels of the company, seeking their input on what was working and not working in their respective areas, and he expected his leadership teams to do the same. During the BPRs, he and the team leaders shared what they’d learned with each other, along with progress data from their departments.
The first meeting was wildly unproductive. In spite of Mulally’s reassurance that honesty would not be penalized, team leaders presented their successes, but remained quiet about what was not working efficiently. About halfway through, Mulally stopped the meeting. “We’re going to lose billions of dollars this year,” he said. “Isn’t there anything that’s not going well here?” Still, no one spoke.
As the second BPR approached, Mark Fields, in charge of Ford Americas, faced a dilemma: Production had already begun on the new Ford Edge, but a grinding noise coming from the suspension had been reported. Deciding to take Mulally at his word that honesty would not be punished, he reported the issue. The silence in the room was deafening. Fields remembers his colleagues had begun to look at him with pity when suddenly, Mulally started clapping. “Mark, that’s great visibility!” he said. “Who can help Mark with this?”
In the months following this revelatory meeting, Mulally taught the different branches of Ford Automotive to rethink their individualized approach into a “One Team” perspective, working together for the success of everyone. He encouraged his team leaders to share information, to problem-solve together, to extend the practice of honesty without penalty to staff from all levels, and to value the input they received. When asked why he felt this extreme brand of community and communication was so important, he stated simply, “We finally have it all out in the open. Now we can start fixing it.”
It’s easy, in times like this, to become overwhelmed by uncertainty and paralyzed by fear. None of us has faced anything like this before. But if we take Mulally’s leadership lesson to heart, we know we can work together to successfully lead our teams through this unprecedented time—provided we understand what we’re facing. Mulally often said, “It’s important to seek understanding before seeking to be understood,” and that simple philosophy helped him lead Ford Automotive from bankruptcy to profit. Whatever challenges we face as our country struggles to reopen, a team approach to problem solving will get us further than going it alone. Ask lots of questions, both of your employees and of other leaders you respect and offer your expertise as we all work together to navigate this time successfully.
Join the Conversation!
Alan Mulally knew that for problems to be solved, they first had to be discovered and understood. What are some problems you anticipate as our country reopens its economy? How do you think we can create opportunities for our teams to alert us to the issues they’re facing? Let’s share ideas in the comments below as we all work together during this time.