Ford’s Mark Fields: A Classic Case of Failed Communications

I think the board of Ford Motor acted unfairly in sacking Mark Fields and replacing him with a 62-year-old furniture guy. But what’s done is done. What went wrong?

As a long-time student of how CEOs communicate (see this book), Fields was not able to articulate a vision of how the company was incorporating the raft of new technologies that is disrupting the auto industry. He was making many of the right moves, as I will chronicle below, but he could not or chose not to put these pieces together into something that sounded like a grand strategy.

I think Ford is in a better position to respond to the autonomous driving craze, the ride-sharing challenge and a proliferation of fuel-efficient power trains than either Waymo or Uber because it has the capability of integrating all the pieces into a seamless vehicle. Aside from Tesla, the other challengers from Silicon Valley may have great software engineers but I would argue they have no chance of learning how to actually make an automobile that incorporates these features.

At a glance, under Field’s leadership, Ford created a subsidiary, Ford Smart Mobility, to learn about ride-sharing.

–Ford hired 400 engineers from BlackBerry’s mobility solutions unit, which is critical to strengthen Ford’s ability to create a user-friendly interface between increasingly complex vehicles and the driver.

–Ford’s Chief Information Officer, Marcy Klevhorn, expanded Ford’s presence in Silicon Valley and laid down plans to introduce FordPass, which would allow drivers to reserve and pay for parking spaces.

–Ford invested $182 million in Pivotal Software, a maker of software tools in cloud computing, and it invested in Velodyne LiDAR, a leading maker of the systems that allow vehicles to create 360-degree views of what is happening around them.

–Ford acquired majority ownership of Argo AI, an artificial intelligence start-up in the San Francisco area.

In short, Ford under Fields was assembling the pieces of a formidable program that would have transformed the company and its products. Those moves might still pay off, but Fields won’t be around–because he could not explain what he was doing. And that’s what CEOs must do–they must be able to create the big picture message that galvanizes different constituencies.


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