It might seem like Ford (NYSE:F) CEO Mark Fields has a hard act to follow. After all, he's the successor to Alan Mulally, rightly regarded as one of the best American CEOs of recent times.
In his first year in the top job, Fields didn't deviate too far from the course set for Ford by Mulally. Fields embraced Mulally's "One Ford" approach from the start, and he has continued to use the "One Ford" template as a guidepost for employees.
But he has also begun to put his own stamp on Ford -- in part, by looking to Silicon Valley.
Fields' own take on the famed "One Ford" plan
During Mulally's tenure, it was customary for Ford executives to invoke the tenets of the "One Ford" plan at the beginning of business presentations. Mulally even had a summary of the plan printed on cards and distributed to Ford employees.
Simply put, the "One Ford" plan calls for Ford to work as a single global unit, with groups within the company working cooperatively toward "profitable growth for all." It sounds simple, but it was a sea change for Ford, which for years had been driven by internal rivalries and which was spending too much money on product development because of its region-specific approach.
Fields continues to invoke the "One Ford" plan, and an image of Mulally's card still appears in many Ford presentations. But Fields' refrain incorporates three new priorities.
"These drive all of our folks including myself every day we walk in the door," Fields said during Ford's second-quarter earnings conference call. "Accelerating the pace of progress of our One Ford plan, delivering product excellence with passion, and driving innovation in every part of our business."
What's that mean? To Fields, it's about looking ahead to the changes coming to the global auto business, particularly from potential "disruptors" in Silicon Valley -- and preparing Ford to thrive through those changes.
Pushing Ford to "disrupt like a startup company"
"It's about having one foot firmly planted into today and staying riveted on the business and delivering today's results," Fields said during the call. "But it's also one foot firmly planted in tomorrow, taking a point of view on that future, and rewinding back to today to make sure we're making the decisions to maximize our success in that timeframe."
How is Ford doing that? "We're really pushing ourselves to think, to act, and to disrupt like a status company," Fields said. "That really means trying to anticipate customers' wants and needs in that five-, ten-, and fifteen-year down-the-road timeframe."
It's a hard thing to push a century-old industrial giant to "think, act, and disrupt" like a nimble, young Silicon Valley startup. But it's clear that Fields is trying.
Early this year, Ford announced a whole host of initiatives around what it calls "Smart Mobility." In Ford's words: "Ford Smart Mobility is the company's plan to deliver the next level in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, the customer experience and big data. Ford introduced the plan in January, along with 25 experiments aimed at better understanding consumers' mobility needs around the globe."
Or put another way: connected-car technology, car-sharing, self-driving vehicles, what all of that means for customers' experiences, and how to implement it all technically.
Ford has also taken steps to bring more future-think into the company in other ways, by opening a Silicon Valley office and hiring a slew of software engineers. And Fields has made it clear that he's very aware of Silicon Valley's increasing interest in the auto business, something he emphasized again during the second-quarter earnings call.
It'll be a while before the results are visible in Ford's products
In a business where it can take three years to take a product from idea to launch, it will take time for the ideas behind these initiatives to show up at your local Ford dealer. Some may never show up.
But for a long time, Ford and its Detroit rivals were rightly disparaged for insular thinking. Fields has already begun to change that. We'll find out how well that worked in the years to come.