How to Coach a Future CEO

Posted 02.21.2012

If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know I’m a fan of Ford CEO Alan Mulally.  He started in the top job at Ford about five years ago and, he has led the company to quarter after quarter of profitable growth.  He’s accomplished that through any number of ways.  Probably one of the biggest is by changing the culture of the company’s leadership team.

Of course, you change a culture by inspiring people to think, feel and act differently.  It’s a process of winning hearts and minds.  As the New York Times reported this past weekend, Mulally just turned 66 and is expected to retire in the next couple of years.  The front runner to succeed him is an executive named Mark Fields who runs Ford’s business in the Americas.

In reading the story on Ford and Fields, I was struck by the evidence that Fields has changed his style as a leader over the past five years.  Of course, that’s concurrent with Mulally’s time at the company.  Prior to Mulally’s arrival, Fields was a high flier (literally and figuratively) who had gotten himself in trouble when it was revealed that he was using Ford’s corporate jets to fly back and forth to his Florida home at the same time that he was cutting thousands of jobs at the company and shutting down manufacturing plants.

As Fields himself said, “There was a ‘dead pool’ about me.  People were saying, ‘When is Fields going to get shown the door?’ ”  Five years later, however, he’s a poster dude for what great coaching and role modeling can do to turn an executive’s career and life around.

Mulally is renowned for his inclusive, it’s-OK-to-tell-the-truth management style.   You can get a feel for how he does it in a video interview he did with the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki a few years ago.  At around the 10 minute mark, he tells the story of one of his first weekly management team meetings at Ford when Mark Fields stepped out to report that a product launch was in red status when the norm over the years had been to report everything green even if it was all in the tank.   Mulally literally applauded Fields at that moment and thanked him for telling it straight.  He then asked the rest of the team what they could do to help Fields out.  Others stepped up, offered help and Mulally had made one of his first points about the leadership culture he wanted to establish.

In the Times article, Fields said that, prior to Mulally, “You never said you needed help.  That was a sign of weakness.”  These days at Ford, asking for help is a sign of strength.  Among the many legacies that Mulally will leave at Ford that has to be one of the most important.

What opportunities do you have to change the leaders of your organization through coaching and role modeling?  What changes have you made as a result of a leader’s positive example and coaching?