How Ford’s dramatic turnaround can turn your company around, too

To win a race, an elite rowing crew must not only train strenuously, but they must also have mutual respect and a shared determination to succeed.

The same is true in business. Just like the best rowing crews, the best business teams operate as one: They are completely aligned, in tune, and working towards the same goals.

If you find that you and your team are going around in circles rather than making progress towards your objectives, it is likely that your strategic alignment is off balance and your team is pulling in different directions.

In my work as an international business coach, I’ve identified many reasons why teams fall out of sync. One of the most common lies in issues with attitude and behavior.

Some of the greatest turnarounds in American business involved a major change in organizational behaviors. Alan Mullaly, former CEO of Ford Motor Company, led one of the most dramatic turnarounds in American business history through, largely, changes in the company’s structure, attitude and behavior.

Here are lessons you can draw from Mullaly’s success story:

• Get on the same page.

The year Mullaly became CEO of Ford, the company had posted a record $12.7 billion loss. One of the first steps he took to address the company’s severe troubles was to establish weekly, mandatory Thursday morning meetings, known as the Business Plan Review, or BPR, with his 16 top executives. This put every company leader on the same page, ensuring the company throughout was aligned on the same goals.

• Ensure accountability.

Mullaly established several baseline rules for the weekly BPR. Each executive was responsible for reporting on the status of his or her department or division, and Mullaly made a rule that there were to be no delegating parts of the presentation to a subordinate. Each leader was responsible for articulating his group’s plan, status, forecast, and areas that needed special attention.

• Encourage respect.

Mullaly recognized that respect for one another is at the heart of a well-functioning team. During their BPRs, each leader was expected to be fully respectful of everyone else. He established rules: No side discussions. No joking at the expense of others. No interruptions. And no distracting cell phones. Collaboration — not competition — was the group goal. Each leader was expected to help, not judge, the other leaders.

• Demand transparency and honesty.

Mullaly demanded that each leader introduce their status report the same way. He himself began each meeting with this language: “My name is Alan Mulally and I am the CEO of Ford Motor Company.” Each leader was expected to introduce themselves the same way. Mullaly also established a scoring system for the status of different areas: green/yellow/red, which corresponded to good/concerned/poor. Leaders not only used this language to describe their areas of the company, but they also used it to self-evaluate their own performance during the week. This created a standard of accountability, transparency, and honesty.

• Demand buy-in.

Several of Mullaly’s executives bristled at the changes he instituted. They resisted change, their egos getting in the way of completely committing to a total company vision and a large-scale behavioral change. Mullaly let them know their resistance did not make them bad people, but they did have a choice: Buy in or leave the team.

• Have zero tolerance.

Mullaly made expectations clear and established a system so every leader was aware of the company’s overall progress towards a common goal. Everyone knew the plan. Everyone knew the status of the plan. Everyone knew the areas that needed special attention. This is how the executives discussed the only metric that mattered during Ford’s turnaround: How can we help one another more? Mullaly made it clear there was zero tolerance for personality clashes, for putting self above team, for any deviation from the rules.

Within a few short years, Mullaly’s leadership took Ford from a failing company to a thriving, profitable company once again, a turnaround that has been called a “history-making revitalization.”

Mullaly instituted changes in behavior that ensured his leaders shared mutual respect and a shared determination to succeed. They became a team that was completely aligned, working towards the same goals.

They acted, in essence, as an elite rowing crew.

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