Think Pieces

Michael's thoughts on the auto industry, its products, and/or this website.

Why a Car Guy CEO Isn't the Answer for Ford

Car guys know exactly what's wrong with Ford: car guys like them aren't running the show. Otherwise, every product coming out of Dearborn would look "great" (no need to be more specific) and dust the competition. Hence Bill Ford's decision to hire Alan Mulally to take over as CEO comes as a real disappointment. Obviously, he would have done better hiring anyone who truly knows and loves cars than this Lexus-driving Boeing executive.

Sorry, CarNut4CEO. It just isn't so.

Every auto enthusiast has done it. We've all figured we'd do a much better job running Ford than the suits in the Glass House. In design competitions, we'd pick the sexy themes, not the ugly ones. Focus groups wouldn't have a say. We'd command the engineers to create direct-injected twin-charged dual-variable-cammed engines that rev smooth as silk and sing songs of pure adrenaline. There'd be no more slushboxes. No more front-wheel-drive, either. Every suspension would be firmly damped. Every bucket seat would be solidly bolstered. Cheap plastic would be banned and every bit of trim perfectly aligned.

The problem is, most car buyers don't know much about VVT. What they do know is they aren't going to pay much for things that have no obvious impact on getting from Point A to Point B. Their eyes, fingertips and rear ends don't see and feel the same things as those of car guys.

What do most car buyers want? Guess at your own peril. You can scrape the surface by asking them. You can observe how they use their cars at rest stops and parking lots. You can try to walk in their shoes, perhaps even going so far as to don costumes that simulate the experience of being encumbered by arthritis, pregnancy, or nails and heels. Do this long enough and intensively enough, and you might figure them out. Then you've got to translate what you've learned into the thousands of details that comprise a car -- from the curve of the fender to every last button and switch. Do this right and all of these bits cohere into a "gotta have" for that car buyer (who hopefully isn't unique).

You don't have nearly enough time to do all of this yourself. The thousands of decisions that constitute an automobile's design require contributions from hundreds of people. Ideally, the people who know the customer and the people who style and engineer all of the bits work together seamlessly, accepting and melding one another's expertise to create an appealing, coherent whole. And let's not forget the dreaded "bean counters": this whole has to be affordable. Achieving this synthesis might be the most difficult task in the world.

Nor can you simply hire the best and the brightest and simply toss them into a room together. A program team needs a leader to pull everyone together around a customer-based product vision. Even this mid-level executive can't know everything or get fully involved in every decision. He's got to develop a team capable of creating this synthesis, and he's got to be able to let them do it.

Ford's CEO is at least three levels removed from its program managers, who are themselves a few levels above the grunts in the trenches. If, after a twenty-slide Powerpoint presentation, this CEO can make better decisions about product details than the team that has lived and breathed the product and market, then something is wrong. It doesn't matter how car-smart this CEO is. If the program team is decent, then no exec's that brilliant. If the team isn't decent, then game over.

Nevertheless, Dearborn's top brass frequently steps in and makes such decisions. The media legitimizes this meddling, lauding gutsy top execs who make snap product decisions. There's no glory in letting the grunts do their jobs. Finally, to survive Ford's ever-virulent corporate politics, each executive must prove he knows more than the other guy does while second-guessing every decision the other guy makes.

In this environment, it takes a tough exec to let the experts be the experts, to put the processes and organization in place that will foster great teams and let these teams do their job. This strategy isn't romantic. It doesn't make for dramatic headlines. It's not something that those of us outside Ford can see and comprehend. It's just what Ford needs from its new CEO. He's not a hip-shooting car guy, so this may be what they actually get.

Thanks for reading.

Michael Karesh, TrueDelta

First posted: September 15, 2006
Last updated: November 16, 2006

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