As the auto industry shifts from selling sheet metal to offering a range of mobility services, veteran executives have reason to be anxious about the future of their companies – and their jobs. Case in point: Ford announced yesterday that Jim Hackett is taking over the reins from CEO Mark Fields, who worked his way to the top of the food chain after toiling at the company for nearly three decades.
The appointment of the ex-CEO of Steelcase, who ran Ford’s Smart Mobility division since March 2016 and has served on the company’s board, left many questioning the choice of a former furniture executive to run an automaker over an octane-in-the-veins veteran like Fields. But it could be a harbinger of more C-suite changes as the auto industry is transformed by technology and increasingly threatened by new Silicon Valley players such as Google, Apple and Uber.
“The clock speed at which our competitors are working …requires us to make decisions at a faster pace,” Ford executive chairman and company scion Bill Ford, Jr. said in a press conference yesterday to announce the leadership change. Like Tesla’s Elon Musk – whose company as of Friday was valued at $51 billion to Ford’s $43 billion, which has become a bone of contention for the automaker’s shareholders – Hackett is an example of the kind of fast-acting CEO it will take for car companies to succeed in the future amid massive disruption and aggressive interlopers.
Unlike Musk, Hackett has Midwestern bona fides – he played football at the University of Michigan and later served as the school’s interim athletic director – and is the rare buttoned-down CEO that can command the respect of the open-collar Silicon Valley crowd. “The Silicon Valley culture is very, very different than the industrial Midwest,” Bill Ford said on stage today. “And to see Jim not only navigate that so well but to be held in such high regard there made an impression on me.”
Hackett also has an important Valley ally in IDEO cofounder and former CEO David Kelley. A disciple of design thinking, Hackett credits the philosophy made famous by Kelley for helping transform Steelcase from a conventional office furniture manufacturer to a creator of cutting-edge work spaces. Under Hackett, Steelcase invested in the renowned design consulting firm in the mid-1990s, and Hackett and Kelley developed a close working relationship.
According to the Detroit News, Hackett and Kelley were connected by a “live audio-video feed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so they could collaborate in real time between IDEO’s office in California and Steelcase’s headquarters in Michigan.” Hackett acknowledges that the way he approaches business was transformed by IDEO and its human-centered design philosophy.
“As I was cutting foam core on the floor of one of the studios, I was thinking: I would never work the same way again after doing this,” Hackett said of an early visit to IDEO HQ. “Not just designers should work like this, but anybody who is a knowledge worker should work like this.”
As Ford balances selling vehicles now with providing mobility services for the future, this flexible mindset could serve the company well. Kelley told TheStreet last year that “Hackett has a penchant for solving how much to spend on the core business vs. how much to invest in new ideas.”
And unlike many auto execs, Hackett is not afraid to move fast. Andrea Fischer Newman, a regent at the University of Michigan and senior vice president of government affairs for Delta Air Lines, told the Detroit News that Hackett “immediately set about to make changes” when he took over as interim athletic director at the school in 2014, including immediately firing head football coach Brady Hoke and famously hiring former San Francisco 49ers’ head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Hackett is also credited with helping the school ink a $173.8 deal with Nike. “Jim is nothing if not about the future,” said Newman. “He sees things that other people don’t see and he looks ahead.”
While all automaker CEOs have to see years ahead to be successful, the next decade in the industry will be nothing like the last five. And they’ll need a vision that balances mobility innovation with bread-and-butter car building. Or risk going the way of Mark Fields.
Originally published by Forbes.com