Ford: Walking the talk

Engaging employees takes a dedicated effort

It is widely known that the North American automotive sector needed to go through massive change to avoid extinction in 2008. In case you have forgotten the intensity of this point in time, here are a couple of perspectives:

“In late 2008, our nation’s economy – and the auto industry in particular – entered its deepest crisis since the Great Depression. Almost overnight, demand for new automobiles fell from an annual rate of over 17 million units to an annual rate under 10 million units.” (UAW Solidarity, May-June 2010)

“Should all of the Detroit Three’s U.S. operations cease in 2009, the first year total employment impact would be a loss of nearly three million jobs in the U.S. economy…Lost tax revenue between 2009 and 2011 would be an estimated $156.4 billion (U.S. dollars).” (The Center for Auto Research , USA – PDF)

Ford was one of the Detroit Three, and as such, a big ship to turn around. The magnitude of this change would necessitate complete employee engagement. Ford’s CEO, Alan Mulally, knew this.

Many of us will not be confronted with the magnitude of change required to turn Ford around, but employee engagement is a critical issue in all businesses.

Engaged employees achieve higher levels of productivity, and facilitate healthier relationships with peers and customers. Disengaged employees generally don’t leave; they stay and adversely affect productivity and relationships. Organizational leadership must consider how to best impact employee engagement en-route to sustainable high performance.

Healthy cultures facilitate employee engagement. Culture is ultimately leadership behavior. Therefore, what a leader models, communicates, orients, supports, measures and holds accountable, is what will determine the health of organizational culture. Every organization has a culture, healthy or not. A few signs of unhealthy culture are fear, mistrust, blaming, silo / individualist behavior, poor communication, and lack of clarity in objectives.

In my last column, I relayed how Ford’s CEO Alan Mulally established a clear vision for change (summarized on the front of the One Ford card), and further worked with the leadership team to establish, communicate and measure expected behaviors (summarized on the back side of the One Ford card, shown here) by which all employees would be held supported and accountable.

Effective implementation, modeling and management of “expected behaviors” finds its foundation in mission, vision and values. Mission (what we do) and vision (what success looks like) bring us to the place of establishing values for sustainability (how we must do what we do). A statement such as Ford’s Expected Behaviors is simply a pragmatic expression of values lived out. As Felicia Field (Ford’s Group VP of HR and Corporate Services) puts it, “It is how we work, think and do. It is not an HR project.”

Implementation takes consistent dedication of time, effort and resources. According to Michele Jayne, project manager for the One Ford card, “Communication began with the leadership team first. Alan connected with all salaried employees directly, and lead executives connected directly with their employees. To further support the cultural change, the One Ford card was accompanied by posters, articles and the development of an internal website.” All of these actions were undertaken to ensure that expectations were clearly communicated and that employees would be supported in their change. Ford’s resources, such as classes, books, web links and articles, target the support of each articulated expectation. If an employee wants to know how they can be better at their ability to “build strong relationships”, there are resources to support them.

Ford is engaging its employees. More importantly, Ford’s executives are engaging with employees.

As I have been researching and writing how Ford has navigated such a significant turnaround in just a few short years, I have arrived at the formation of what I may call a rule of engagement: “don’t expect anyone to be engaged with you, if you are not engaged with them.”

No one expects a leader to be perfect; perfection is impossible. Engagement will require that a leader vulnerably model and be held accountable to the same expected behaviors as everyone else…and to model reconciliation when they fail.