See myself as creator of exciting, growing businesses: Alan Mulally

At Boeing Company he is still cherished as a star and for Ford Motor Company, he is a saviour. Alan Mulally spoke to Business Today on leadership and the secret behind his high motivation levels.

Alan Roger Mulally Photo: Nilotpal Baruah/ Alan Roger Mulally <em>Photo: Nilotpal Baruah/</em>

At the Boeing Company he is still cherished as a star and for the Ford Motor Company, he definitely is a saviour. Making and selling planes and cars are two different things but Alan Roger Mulally (69) applied what he learnt at Boeing to turn around Ford. So after leading this giant American corporation to success in the span of nearly eight years, he is all set to leave Ford on June 30. On a farewell visit to the company's Chennai plant, he spoke to Business Today on leadership, management philosophy and the secret behind his high motivation levels that refuse to ebb away even after a 45-year-long career. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Q. All through your career, you have worked in just two companies - Boeing and Ford. Is longevity key to your success?

A. In my case I found two dreams to live. The first one was Boeing. I graduated as an aeronautical engineer and got a chance to work for the finest airplane company in the world. The longevity was natural as I got to serve in the design team of every new airplane. Each one of them changed the world whether it is 737 Short Range, 747 Long Range or 777, which can fly non-stop half way around the world. I spent 37 years there but it was just exciting. I never really thought I will leave Boeing. As a matter of fact I wanted to design one more plane -the replacement for Boeing 737. Then I got a call from Bill Ford. I really felt that I was being asked to serve a second American and global icon. My 45 years in the two companies went like a flash.

Q. When you decided to join Ford, the projections were that it would incur a loss of $17 billion, the highest in its 104-year history. Nevertheless you joined. Why?

A. It was indeed a serious time and Ford could have run out of money really fast. But I always believed in the power of talented people working together around a compelling vision and a comprehensive strategy to achieve that vision. I knew even though Ford was in a tough financial shape, if we really pull together and move decisively we could actually reverse the situation and create an exciting profitable company, which is what we did. I never really had a doubt about turning around Ford.

Q. When you pledged all of Ford's assets, including the blue Oval, to raise $23.5 billion, many saw it as an 'act of desperation'. In the end you were proved right. How should a leader deal with criticisms?

A. It is true that a lot of people had criticised the move and many even questioned our ability to repay the loan. If we had not borrowed the money, we would have gradually gone out of business. We would not have restructured, invested in new products and served fast-growing markets. The most important thing is to have a point of view, believe in it, prove it to your team and then just do it.

Mulally used a Venn diagram to explain that his day's events, be it work, family or spiritual, are not mutually exclusive
Q. You are the most sought-after turnaround manager. What are the essential attributes of such a leader?

A. I see myself more as a creator of exciting, growing successful businesses. That really drives me. The most important thing is figuring out what we have to dedicate our lives to and achieve it in the best possible manner. In Ford's case we stuck to Henry Ford's original vision of making cars available to all. For this we had to get Ford back on rails. We chose to divest brands such as Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover and focus only on Ford and Lincoln, commit serving all markets around the world with complete family of small, medium and large cars and trucks, offer best in class vehicles - in terms of quality, fuel efficiency, safety and smart design at very best value. To achieve this we chose to work as one company utilising all the available resources effectively.

Q. Your ability to convince the team at Ford about your vision is seen as a key reason for success. How did you execute it?

A. The vision was born with all of us working together. It was not something that came to me in the middle of a night. I asked everybody at all levels of the organisation what they thought we should do to revive the company. The fact that we did it together, we all owned it. All the 1,70,000 employees, all our suppliers and dealers knew the plan. They knew the status and what was expected of them. We co-created the plan together and the more you do that the stronger the commitment is and more decisive we can be in its implementation. Also, we put a management system to measure the progress of the plan and identify areas that needed special attention. Our weekly business performance review meetings (held every Thursday) are very comprehensive.

{mosimage}Q. What leadership lessons did your stint in Boeing and Ford teach you?

A. The biggest lesson is seeing your role more as an honour to serve the consumers, employees and other stakeholders and thereby contributing to economic development and a sustainable environment. Also, creating profitable and viable business by harnessing the power of talented people generates a lot of satisfaction personally and professionally. A positive attitude is critical. It helps you look at the world the way it is and find a way out of every challenge.

IN PICTURES: When Mulally made a farewell visit to Ford's Chennai plant

Q. What is your leadership style?

A. Inclusive. Set a vision and demand high performance coupled with accountability, create trust, deal people with respect and have loads of fun.

Q. Your zest belies your age and the fact that you have been working for 45 years. What's the secret?

A. I swear by this particular philosophy (not sure where I learnt this from). People tend to break up their lives into work life, family life, spiritual life and personal life. I get lot of energy from the fact that I lead one integrated life. I like being a father, a spouse, looking up to things larger than you spiritually and every once in a while love being me. Key for me is to have all these things that are important to me integrated into my daily life. This I do by looking at my schedule every morning and every night to ensure that everything that is important is included. I never separate these out. I don't decide that I will have family life next year on this day or read a book next weekend as part of my personal life. I am married for 44 years and have five children. We have a family meeting every Sunday morning to decide on the calendar. Who has to go to a soccer game, ballet and so on. The kids look at the calendar to tell me if they want a bit more of me. It's an integrated life. If something is missing in a day, I put it back.

If we had not borrowed the money, we would have gone out of business. The most important thing is to have a point of view, believe in it, prove it to your team and then just do it

Q. You have said that many times the excitement of the next day's business performance review meeting has prevented you from sleeping. How do you manage this level of motivation after so many years at work?

A. I love reviewing performance and watching our dream take shape, talking to colleagues across the world and looking at colour codes. Mark Fields [CEO designate] called me early in the first week of this month from Europe where he was reviewing the operations asking me if I could lead the business performance review meeting. He had looked up at the calendar and realised that it will the last Thursday I will be at Dearborn before retirement. A year and a half ago he was made the COO and I moved aside to let him lead the meeting. I grabbed the opportunity to lead the meeting again (smiles).

Q. Do you still have the same appetite to take up challenges?

A. I don't feel any different from how I felt when I participated in my first airplane programme at Boeing or the day I started work at Ford. I see my work as service and I love it. To serve is to live.

Q. Any regrets?

A. No. We did everything to create a viable, exciting and profitable Ford.