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Ford Motor Company CEO: To innovate, one must challenge customs and question traditions

Ford Motor Company CEO: To innovate, one must challenge customs and question traditions

Mark Fields discusses the evolution of the auto industry, and how the business he leads is moving from an auto company to an auto and mobility company.
March 18, 2016
Mark Fields, Ford Motor Company CEO

If you ask Ford Motor Company CEO Mark Fields what his favorite Ford car is, he’ll give you an unlikely answer: the Ford Transit Van. Fields began his nearly 27-year career with Ford on the product planning team for this vehicle and says the van embodies Ford’s values — it’s accessible and hard-working. Since his early days at Ford, Fields has served in a variety of global leadership roles, and despite his long list of achievements, he says he's never been more excited about where the company is headed.

In a talk with a group of students at Stanford School of Engineering on February 25, 2016, Fields shared his perspective on the evolution of the auto industry, the role Ford is looking to play as the industry changes, and the keys to innovating at a large, 113-year-old company. Here are a few insights from his talk:

From an auto company to an auto and mobility company

Mobility is redefining the car business. Fields explains that when you look at societal trends, drivers today are as interested in access to vehicles as they are in ownership. Residents in major urban areas are increasingly forgoing car ownership because cars are too expensive, parking is impossible, or the use of cars in downtown areas is being legislated away. In London, Fields says, it costs £11.50, or about $17, to drive a car into downtown. By 2019, the city of Oslo hopes to ban the private use of vehicles downtown. In addition, companies like Uber, Lyft, and Zipcar are changing the way people think about getting from point A to point B. As car sharing and ridesharing business models offer alternatives to car ownership, Ford is asking itself, How do we play a role in these new economies and lead the way in identifying new urban mobility solutions?

While Ford traditionally has focused on measuring vehicles sold, the company is broadening its business to think about how it can combine great products with great experiences that help make people’s lives better. In one of the most significant strategic shifts in the company’s 113-year history, Ford is expanding its business model to be both an auto and a mobility company. While building on its core strengths as an auto company, Ford is aggressively expanding into emerging opportunities through Ford Smart Mobility — the company’s plan to be a leader in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, the customer experience, and data and analytics. To innovate in these areas, the approach at Ford, Fields says, is to disrupt from within.

To innovate, challenge customs and question traditions

As Ford looks to expand into emerging opportunities in the world of mobility, Fields explains that innovation at Ford can be traced back to founder Henry Ford. “Ford’s people know how to innovate,” Fields says. “It’s the job of leadership to make sure that innovation can happen.” When asked how he enables innovation at a company as large and with as much history as Ford, Fields shares one of Ford’s cultural tenets: Challenge customs, question traditions. Fields makes deliberate efforts to talk about the importance of challenging customs and questioning traditions with Ford employees every opportunity he gets. This way, even if someone is in a meeting with a manager that is three levels up, they understand they have the permission to say, “Hey, what about this?”

Encouraging employees to challenge customs and question traditions alone, however, is not enough. Fields has learned that ongoing and proactive communication is critical to success. “When you don’t communicate about your objectives, your progress, your challenges, people make up their own facts about what’s going on. That’s where rumors start and things can get dysfunctional,” says Fields. Fields spends a lot time communicating within the organization through regular video blogs and town hall meetings. He prioritizes sharing information about what’s happening in the marketplace, in government policy, and with the competition to help employees understand where they fit into the bigger picture. And in an effort to reinforce the company’s core values, Fields ends all-hands meetings with stories from teams who successfully challenged customs or questioned traditions to innovate, as well as teams who took appropriate risks and maybe didn’t succeed initially, but learned something useful.

Dream with a deadline

In whatever position he’s in, Fields says, he takes the time to look forward three to five years to envision what he wants his team to achieve. Tapping into this long-term thinking helps Fields to set a “North Star” or an end-goal for his work. On days when Fields is faced with an inevitable challenge or setback, keeping his eye on the identified end-goal gives him the perseverance to keep working. “Listen, there will be days when you take two steps forward and feel great. There will also be days when you take a step or two backward. If you just live in the day and don’t have that North Star, you’ll drive yourself crazy,” says Fields.

As he works toward big goals at the helm of Ford’s transition from an auto company to an auto and mobility company, the ability to prioritize is critical. Every Sunday night, Fields sits down and makes a list of 5 to 10 key things he wants Ford to achieve in the week ahead. When he’s done, he compares the list to his calendar. Anything on his calendar that is not related to one of his key priorities for the week is removed. Fields, of course, means no disrespect by this, he simply must be focused in order to keep Ford moving forward in a rapidly changing world.