Courage changes culture

I’m ever so fascinated with Alan Mullally, who took over as CEO of Ford in 2006 to turn the company’s fortunes around. Last week while listening to a podcast, I heard Alan describe how difficult it was initially to encourage people to break out of their silos and shake up the status quo.

People, particularly his leadership team, were hesitant of change, as was evident from the weekly business plan reviews that Alan had instituted. The leaders in-charge had to present their initiatives with a red/yellow/green status to collectively identify the challenges, determine how it impacts the company’s overall bottom line, and develop a solution. And surprisingly, for the first few weeks, every status report was green, meaning — everything’s fine and dandy; let’s not sweat about it.

The exercise went on for several weeks until Alan, in frustration, blurted out during one of these meetings, “we are going to lose billions of dollars this year. Is there anything that’s not going well here?” Silence. A few weeks later, one executive decided to turn in his report as red. It would’ve cost him his job under the previous leadership, but Alan, he clapped, thanked, acknowledge this executive for being honest and transparent. He then turned to everyone else in the room for insights on what can be done to get the initiative back on the track.

What followed was a valuable discussion that changed the course of Ford’s trajectory from thereon. As weeks went by, more executives showed up with red status reports because they realized being transparent is an opportunity for them to address what’s not working and find solutions that will help them progress.

All because one person chooses to be courageous enough to be humble about his reality. They say, “to change outcomes, change behavior. And to change behavior, change the culture.” But I believe nothing happens unless someone chooses courage and humility over ego and status.

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