Blinded by the Light

Alan Mulally and Bill Ford
Mulally and Ford at the Coronation Announcement

The Wall Street Journal had a marvelous article [ed: unfortunately subscription-only] about the turnaround Alan Mulally is trying to make at Ford. I have written about this before (see this post here), but put simply, I am a huge fan of Mr. Mulally. He did great things at Boeing, and from what I can tell from this article, he’s off to a great start at Ford too.

The article goes on to describe in detail how Mulally is analyzing a business he is admittedly new to, and how he’s working on his plan for change at the company.

The fate of this automotive icon rests on the aggressive plans of Mr. Mulally, a former Boeing Co. executive who has spent his career outside the auto industry. His emerging agenda calls for Ford to plow through “gut-wrenching” change to achieve profitability by 2009.

From what I can see, he’s hitting all the right notes by focusing on brand overlap, silly inconsistencies and waste between brands, and overall efficiency. Again, this is a guy who has moved mountains at one of the largest employers in the country, I’m sure he can make strides here. “‘I’ve seen this movie before,’ Mr. Mulally told his new executive team when he took over Oct. 1.” I just wish he could teach our president a thing or two about analyzing situations and facing ugly facts, but I digress…

One of the more interesting notes in the article however, very much caught my eye.

In the executive suite he shares with Chairman Bill Ford, Mr. Mulally says he asked Mr. Ford why he hadn’t integrated the company. He says Mr. Ford agreed that integration was desirable, but told him it was difficult. Every time Ford had considered forcing integration, a new hit product — such as the Explorer, Taurus or F-series truck — would come along and propel profitability without tough changes, explained the fourth-generation Ford leader.

To steal from Mr. Mulally, I’ve seen this movie before too. I have watched more than a few companies put off changes they knew they needed to make because they were blinded by their success. And the more bright the light from the current success, the more blinded they became to the obvious issues. It’s important to realize this not only applies to products and/or projects, but also to people. We tend to overlook the worst part of peoples’ behavior when they are having success as well.

The more bright the light from the current success, the more blinded they became.

I saw it quite a bit at Microsoft. It is no secret that the Windows team recently made some major changes in leadership that were long overdue. Those changes were put off time and again by the product’s stunning profitability and the fear of killing the golden goose. There are a dozen more, less public, examples of products that were off-target and in need of correction, but still creating revenues that would finance even the most outrageous debacles.

We also had managers who were simply terrible, and yet were continually promoted or rewarded for their results. I discuss this here too, but success postpones many needed HR actions at Microsoft and elsewhere. I even wrote in the performance review of one jerk who worked for me that he “is being removed from a supervisor position and being returned to an individual contributor role, and should never again be allowed to supervise others.” He was recently mentioned in a national publication as a potential future CEO of the company.

Don’t let success blind you to the changes you need to make.

The point of all this is that, just like dental hygiene, auto maintenance, and many other things, just because you seem to be OK today doesn’t mean your gut instinct that things need to be fixed is wrong. Don’t let success blind you to the changes you need to make. And don’t, please, make that jerk your CEO.