The Art of Working Together
Many artful leaders spoke words of wisdom at Global Leadership Summit 2016 (GLS-2016). Bill Hybels kicked off the conference with “The Lenses of Leadership” (https://shinecrossingsblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/leaders-are-servants-part-1/) and passed the baton to Alan Mulally, who has accumulated many accolades with his name appearing on several lists including world’s most influential people and world’s greatest leaders. Who knew that this humble man, who has served as Executive Vice President of Boeing and CEO of Ford Motor Company, would deliver his personal stories of crushing stereotypes and taking the fear out of failure. He headlined his session as “The Art of Working Together,” which sounded more like an adult title for “Playing Nice in the Sandbox.” Below is GLS’s second key message (Part 2) shared by what I thought was one of the most heart-warming and soft- spoken leaders, Alan Mulally, along with my entwined commentary.
Alan Mulally stood on stage in his khaki slacks and blue blazer looking rather like a typical corporate executive, a bit nerdy in appearance, and giving a balanced impression of professional approach-ability. He then proceeded to quickly move through some prepared overhead slides, as if he was a professor in a classroom who was chuckling under his breath to see whether the classroom full of students could take notes fast enough before the slide would disappear forever. At the pace Alan was moving through his list of principles and practices, within ten minutes I thought he would be done sharing everything he knew about working with teams. My initial impression was far from the truth. Alan was speeding through the slides, so that he could get to the good stuff—the stories from which powerful messages are communicated. Those stories were black comedy ridiculous, but so true in how many organizations work today.
In case you missed it, below are the bullet points Alan shared, otherwise known as, those principles and practices needed to effectively work together as a team:
- People first
- Everyone included
- Compelling visions, comprehensive strategy, and relentless implementation
- Clear performance goals
- One plan
- Facts and data
- Everyone knows the plan, the status, and areas that need special attention
- Propose a plan, positive, “find-away” attitude
- Respect, listen, help and appreciate one another
- Emotional resilience; trust the process
- Have fun; enjoy the journey and each other
So that was the simple and concise list—pretty much corporate motherhood and apple pie descriptions. No one would disagree that the list was good, but the phrases had no life. Alan then proceeded to breathe energy into leadership when he told of his story in moving from Boeing to Ford and the conversation he had with a news reporter after the announcement he would be CEO of one of the top U.S. auto manufacturers. Although hesitant, but encouraged by Alan, the news reporter asked the question that held the doubt in many people’s minds. How could Alan Mulally turn Ford Company around when he knew nothing about the automotive industry? Afterall, car manufacturing was complicated. Alan’s paraphrased response was, “And airplanes aren’t? There are ~ 4 million parts in an airplane, and only ~ 10,000 in an average car? And you have to keep a plane from falling out of the sky.” His words brought a huge laugh from the audience, and emphasized the stereotypes that we have about people, their capabilities, and abilities to lead. I have always been one to believe that personal competencies are worth more than technical skills, except in the case of designing a car or airplane or when arguing a criminal case in front of a jury. Then, I want the best engineer or lawyer that money can buy. For the most part, I truly believe you can teach people technical skills, but you can’t teach initiative, concern for accuracy, effective communication, enthusiasm for work, concern for effectiveness, and analytical thinking to name just a few. These competencies are cross-cultural and transcend industry, yet how many times do we want to label or put people in a box based on our own stereotypes and prejudices? Great leaders know that leadership has no boundaries and that what it takes to lead people from HERE to THERE is applicable in all organizations and communities.
Did you know that 58% of employees come to work only for the paycheck? Did you know that only 42% of employees have a positive feeling for the company that they work for? Those statistics are disheartening. Did you know that Alan moved Ford’s average from 42% to 89%? Impressive! As Alan unpacked his stories, there were no magic bullets, just color surrounding the journey in defining vision/mission, developing meaningful goals, including and leveraging people, and most importantly dealing with reality. Dealing with reality? Yes, Alan inherited a culture where even the senior leadership did not dare share the truth with each other for fear of being “excused.” The culture operated in a state of fear and cover-up. When Alan asked his direct reports to provide a goal status in their respective areas using a general color coding of green (good), yellow (caution), or red (trouble), all he got were full pages of green dots. Not one red circle despite the company being on track to lose $17 billion. As you can accurately surmise, the culture embraced a “shoot the messenger” mentality. Alan’s value as a leader was to change Ford’s culture—one of the most difficult tasks because of the momentum and number of people that needed to be moved from HERE to THERE. Culture can be changed, and it starts with a decision and commitment from the top. His philosophy was to always deal with and reward the truth, which was humorously told through his consistent behavior in his staff meetings. The first senior leader to step out and put a red dot on his paper was not only rewarded with a “thank you” but eventually worked his way down the table to a seat next to Alan despite the others’ assumptions of a kick out the door. Alan subtly showcased the reward for transparency and truth-telling, so that others would feel comfortable following suit.
As I like to say, the truth is your friend. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. Alan’s next step in the recipe for creating a winning performance culture was to inherently trust that people will help solve the problem. If you can remove the fear that drives cover-up, you can engage people to work together to solve the problems. I believe fear is one of the most powerful human emotions, and if leaders can penetrate and breakdown the walls that fear has built, they can allow people to move towards each other in more collaborative and innovative ways. Daily business operations are fundamentally about solving problems whether that is how to grow more customers, how to get a plant running again, or secure financing to build a new facility. Attack the fear in your organization and you will have employees who want to work on your team.