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Advice for Ford’s New CEO

May 24

In the aftermath of the changes at the top of Ford, I thought I would add my two and a half cents.

It’s tough to sift through the PR and media speculation to know exactly what is really going on when a change like this happens. For that matter, it’s hard to know what is really going on inside the mind of a board member or chairman. Having said that, here are the hopes and concerns that anyone interested in Ford should be entertaining.

Most importantly, Ford’s new CEO, Jim Hackett, should build upon what Alan Mulally did at Ford when he established a culture of transparency, accountability and clarity. That was nothing short of spectacular, and unprecedented. If the previous CEO, Mark Fields, was let go because the board felt that he had drifted from Alan’s cultural direction, then that will bode well for Ford, as long as Hackett understands and appreciates the wisdom of Mulally’s work.

However, if Hackett believes he needs to remake the culture—and some of his remarks in the media suggest this is the case—then I am very concerned for Ford. Increasing the company’s focus on new products and technology is NOT a cultural change, but a strategic one. And most likely a good one. But if Hackett fails to understand that the cultural transformation Mulally led was momentous, and thinks that he is to remake the company again less than a decade later, then he’s in for a major disappointment.

Leaders like Alan Mulally come around once in a generation. Employees, union leaders, vendors, dealers and partners aren’t just going to go along with the next wave of change at Ford. They’re still getting used to the last one.

Jim Hackett would be wise to consider what happened at Southwest Airlines after Herb Kelleher stepped down as CEO. Many people don’t recall that Southwest hired another CEO who couldn’t quite maintain the momentum of his predecessor before putting current CEO, Gary Kelly, in charge. While Kelly has certainly put his own stamp on the organization, he essentially refocused the company on the founding cultural principles that Kelleher had established.

Alan Mulally may not be the founder of Ford. But he is the re-founder, bringing about a cultural change that defied all expectations. It was that fundamental, and successful. Abandoning that revitalization now would be foolish.