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You Can’t Manage a Secret: 4 Leadership Lessons from Ford’s Alan Mulally

What would you do if your company was on track to lose $17B dollars this year?

If you were Alan Mulally, as the newly appointed President and CEO of Ford Motor Company, you would start by focusing on fostering transparency and vulnerability. After all, you can’t fix what you can’t see.

I recently heard Alan, who retired from Ford in 2014, speak at the EntreLeadership summit in San Antonio, and he shared 4 key leadership lessons that apply to all organizations.

Getting Started

Alan’s career is impressive, including being the CEO of Boeing’s Commercial Airplane division. Alan was the Boeing CEO during 9/11. And he stepped into Ford when the company was on the brink of declaring bankruptcy. Tough jobs to say the least. Imagine the pressure and stress of those roles at those moments in time.

During his talk, Alan described his first meeting with his leadership team at Ford — the same team that was on track to lose $17B that year. Every executive reported their projects and initiatives were in “green” status.

That’s right: Everything is going great. No risks. No issues. “Steady as she goes,” as we say in the Navy.

It’s fun to imagine the expression on Alan’s face as he heard report after report of “green” status.

Obviously, losing $17B didn’t match with Alan’s goals and vision for the company. And clearly, the first reports he received weren’t painting a picture of reality. But instead of berating leaders for their lack of transparency, he started with focusing on his role as the leader of the organization.

Here’s what Alan set out to focus on:

  1. Create clear priorities and a definition of what success looks like.
  2. Be a role model of openness and vulnerability.
  3. Treat “red” and “yellow” reports as true gems.

Let’s discuss how these apply to all of our organizations.

Creating Clear Priorities

You have a clear idea of your organization’s priorities and plans. But does your team? Not just your direct leaders, but the entire team? If the team isn’t clear on where they’re going and why, it will be next to impossible to get everyone pulling in the same direction. 

In my experience, declaring goals and priorities is only half the battle. Declaring what’s not a priority is just as, if not more, important. With the best of intentions, teams can quickly initiate projects and programs that aren’t actually aligned to the highest priority work.

Modeling Openness and Vulnerability

If people are afraid that reporting the true status of an initiative is a career-limiting move, you can be assured all of your team is going to report “green” status. You can encourage transparency when you applaud those who call out issues and risks. Give them the help they need to overcome their challenges. And when they get more traction and more consistently hit their goals, you’ll see others begin to open up.

As for vulnerability, you need to model the behavior you expect. Openly discuss challenges and tough decisions. Don’t act like you have the answer to every question. In short: Be human.

Focusing on “Red” and “Yellow” Gems

As a leader, you need to know where your attention and support is most needed. You don’t have unlimited bandwidth, so knowing where to focus is critical. Projects reported as being in “red” or “yellow” status is a good indicator of where you can help. But remember: People will only be willing to report “red” and “yellow” if they know they’re going to get help — and not grief — when they report something other than “green”!

Start a Weekly Meeting

Final lesson: Start a weekly meeting. Alan leveraged a weekly meeting he called the “Business Plan Review.” Every member of his leadership team came together to review priorities, discuss the status of every initiative, and create focus on what was standing in the way of success. This one meeting reinforced the three elements listed above — while also eliminating the need for countless other meetings. 

One meeting. Loads of focus and transparency.

While the idea of a weekly meeting may seem simple, if a successful CEO of a Fortune 25 company has used it repeatedly through his career, I’m willing to bet it’s worth giving it a try.

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