Full Throttle Book Review: American Icon

How do you revive an industrial giant laid low by itself? In Hindi, there is the phrase of hitting your own leg with your own axe, essentially doing something bad to yourself.

American Icon tells us how Alan Mullaly MADE Ford come together by slashing red tape and pushing the company to unite.

It is also revealing for its timelines, which tell us just how long it can take even for the CEO of a big company to get his way. After Mullaly instructed division heads to colour code their slides according to the importance and urgency of their problems, they thought highlighting the problems would make them look incompetent — especially in front of their peers — and refused to follow his advice. It took a few weeks before one person decided to do so, and it was only after everybody saw that the pioneer wasn’t fired that they started to colour their slides. That means that Alan Mullaly, CEO of Ford Motor Company, actually sat through a couple of high-powered meetings with his subordinates knowing full well that there were problems in the company, but also knowing that he wasn’t being told about them.

In a world where we hardly know anything about what our bosses are up to and how decisions are made, nuggets like this provide perspective to readers about how slow or difficult things really are at the top.

Another nugget in the book that makes a strong impression is a story about the board. Bill Ford, the company chairman, isn’t a finance man. But somebody on his board was, and took ownership of financial guidance. Carl Reichardt was CEO and chairman of Wells Fargo from 1983 to 1994 and a Ford director till 2006. Before he retired, he took Bill Ford aside and told him the financial market was going to harden, and advised borrowing “as much as you can while you can”.

That simple bit of judgement from Reichardt helped push the Ford company into mortgaging everything it had — including its blue oval logo — for $25 billion at the height of the credit boom. When the tide turned and credit costs spiked, Ford was able to ride out the recession paying low interest costs, thanks to its cheap loans.

What the Mullaly slide incident tells us about management, the Reichardt tells us about boards of directors.

The book is peppered with such eye-openers, and its biggest accomplishment is not about telling us how Mullaly succeeded, but in outlining for us everything that goes into success. We learn about Mullaly’s second thoughts about quitting Boeing and moving to Ford, we learn the conversation that Mullaly had with his boss regarding this, and we find out how Mullaly was able to demand that Bill Ford not overlap on his judgements once he had joined Ford. Especially eye-opening is the information that Mullaly used to report for work at 4:30 am.

What is the job of the Chairman or the CEO like? What exactly do people in these posts do? And what, by the way, is the difference in responsibility when the positions are held by two different individuals? We’ve all wondered about this.

American Icon is an excellent answer to all those questions.

Reading Recommendation: Everyone in the service sector, and everyone who has crossed four years of experience should read this book. Freshers and first time readers might not grasp the significance of the advanced aspects discussed, but they won’t be bored reading them.

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