Industry Experience or Aptitude? A Lesson From Ford - 14th July 2020

In late 2008 and only months away from running out of cash, Ford Motor Company faced a bleak future. The wider industry was in even worse shape and, while others took huge bailouts, Ford committed to saving itself. And save itself it did, catapulting from near bankruptcy to becoming the most profitable car maker in the world. The story of how that happened is a remarkable one, detailed in the book “American Icon” by Bryce G. Hoffman.

A key contributor in that colossal turnaround was Alan Mulally, former president of Boeing Company’s commercial aviation division and, as of 5th September 2006, CEO of Ford Motor Company. What’s interesting is that despite helping Boeing recover from the impact of the 9/11 attacks, senior executives at Ford were sceptical. Mulally’s credibility was repeatedly questioned because he was an outsider with no knowledge or experience of the motor industry. In one meeting, Ford’s Chief Technical Officer commented that “we appreciate you coming here from a company like Boeing but you’ve got to realise that this is a very, very capital-intensive business with long product-development lead times. The average car is made up of thousands of different parts and they all have to work together flawlessly.” Not one to be dismissed so easily, Mulally responded “That’s really interesting, the typical passenger jet has four million parts and if just one of them fails, the whole thing can fall out of the sky. So, I feel pretty comfortable with this.”

14 years on, relevant industry experience is an essential requirement for many companies. For some roles, it’s essential for good reason but for many, it’s not. So often those with the desired skills, attitude and aptitude are dismissed outright purely because they lack industry experience. Industry experience isn’t a skill, it’s knowledge. Knowledge can be taught but having the attitude and will to succeed is much more difficult. If an individual has the knowledge AND skills, attitudes and habits you seek – great, hire them! Where that isn’t the case, industry experience is often prioritised over and above other requirements as the perceived risk is lower. If that’s the case, the best person for the job isn’t always the one being hired. How damaging to business success is that?!

It’s positive to read that Ford had the foresight to hire for such a senior role based on skills and ability rather than industry experience. In doing so, Ford took a risk and, rather than detailing the demise of Ford, Hoffman’s narrative is one of success. Since then, Ford has continued to seek fresh eyes for top roles – current CEO Jim Hackett spent 30 years working for furniture manufacturer Steelcase and current CFO Tim Stone has a background in Tech. While only three examples can’t serve as 100% proof of the point, they do suggest that an outsider’s perspective paired with the right qualities, mindset and skillset can breathe life into companies that may otherwise stagnate.