Book Review: American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company

American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company ($18 at Amazon) was a good read, with some good background on the history of Ford making good decisions and bad ones, ultimately leading to Ford truly being in a fight to survive. Bill Ford (of the Ford family of course) understood that Ford had lost focus, had too many brands, and had a culture that was more about turf than anything else. Knowing it didn’t mean he could change it though, and that’s a really interesting lesson – change is hard, sometimes impossible, even when the CEO wants the changes.

Ford did something I admire, something honest but so rare it’s worthy of calling out, he realized he wasn’t getting it done and went looking for someone that could. It probably helped that it was the family business (from his perspective, though it was publicly held) and asking for help was preferable to losing, but it was still a great call,perhaps all the harder because it was a publicly held company.

That brings us eventually to Alan Mulally,who had done great things at Boeing. Tons of experience, used to winning, what interests me is that he applied essentially the same management style at Ford as he did at Boeing – weekly status meetings that were driven by numbers. There’s a lot of common sense in applying a proven strategy, but it doesn’t always cross cultures. In this case it probably didn’t, he made the culture adapt to the meeting. It was interesting to hear about the pushback, the challenges in getting people to report accurate status, and the progress that started once they had a clear and honest view of the business.

They saw the challenges coming and bet big, mortgaging most of what they had to make sure they enough cash. It’s scary to think about a burn rate in the billions. Scary to think about being that leveraged.

Mulally brought a lot to the table. Experience, confidence, political acumen, but in reading the book what comes through is a willingness to build a plan and stick to it. Easy to build a plan, not easy at all to stick with it when things are getting worse. Sticking with it and staying good natured, even harder!

It’s hard to tell reading it how objective it is, if only because it doesn’t mention many bad moves. It’s worth reading, lots of good leadership lessons, lots of good culture lessons – think about the pressure, the fear they had to go through. Recommended.