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3 Lessons I’ve Learned about Leading through Crisis from Alan Mulally

May 21, 2020 Jennifer McCollum

As we rise to the challenges of the ongoing COVID-19 public health and economic crisis, we have waded together into uncharted waters. In just two short months, everything has changed. From our ability to physically come together and collaborate to the vast economic implications forcing innovation in our businesses, we are all working to adapt to a new and uncertain world.

It took several weeks for me to realize that waiting for the world to “return to normal” was an unrealistic and unhelpful mindset. We are living in unprecedented times that will lead us to a completely new normal, which we will co-create for months and years to come. Once I embraced this paradigm shift, I became more open, flexible and forward-thinking. I turned my attention with our team on how to quickly pivot our work with one another and with our clients. The stakes were and are high; our very survival is at risk, and our business is not alone.

Purposeful Leadership During a Time of Uncertainty

Looking at the past can help guide our future. There has been extreme uncertainty during crisis several times in the last few decades, and there have been leaders and organizations who have excelled in similar conditions. These leaders hold the key to our future; the examples they set can help us navigate today’s unsettled waters with hope, determination and focus.

One such leader is my mentor Alan Mulally. Over the last several months, I have applied the lessons I have learned from him to guide me. Alan served as Chief Executive Officer of both Ford Motor Company and Boeing Commercial Airplanes through their greatest challenges in their history—leading Ford through the 2008 economic crisis and Boeing through the aftermath of 9/11 and its deep impact on travel. He is a luminary, a groundbreaking leader who used his vision to inspire his teams and employees to achieve beyond what they thought possible.

I recently interviewed Alan during a webinar in Linkage’s Critical Leadership Conversations series. During our time together, we continued an important conversation addressing these critical questions: How can leaders rise to the challenge of leading in such tumultuous and difficult times? How can leaders inspire their teams to ascend to even greater heights, when everything is on the line?

In both CEO roles, Alan challenged long-held organizational shortcomings and empowered his leaders to recommit to the highest principles of American enterprise—ingenuity, innovation and integrity. And he did this at a time when expectations—and the potential for failure—were all-encompassing.

Here are just a few of the leadership lessons I’ve learned from Alan about leading in a crisis:

1. Deal with reality, no matter how harsh it might be.

It is the job of leaders to deftly deal with difficult topics. They are responsible for making important, deeply consequential decisions every day that impact the short- and long-term futures of their organizations, stakeholders and employees. This is a tremendous responsibility, and during times of crisis and uncertainty, the stakes are even higher.

In periods of high stress, the worst thing a leader can do is to ignore reality or understate the issues you are facing as a company. Alan’s leadership at Ford and Boeing was successful precisely because of his radical candor about the state of the business and his honesty about the reality of the current environment. By tackling issues head on, he was able to overturn deep-rooted organizational practices that were holding teams back from being able to acknowledge problems and innovate new solutions. Alan motivated his organization and team with a shared vision, and he challenged leaders to make decisions using data and transparency, while leaving office politics behind.

Even before COVID-19 began having a significant impact on our business, we were already making information on business health available to all staff. When we recently had to make the most difficult decisions related to cost cutting, we explained in detail the context behind it and the path to recovery. The acknowledgment of reality was welcomed. Here is an example of the response from one of our most senior account directors:

“I just wanted to say thank you for your leadership and transparency during these challenging times. I hope you are doing okay, as I know it is not easy to make so many difficult decisions in such a short period of time. I appreciate the leadership team and how you all have us/employees at the center.” 

2. Always work on the better plan.

During Alan’s time at Ford Motor Company, he led radical change in the company structure, products and culture. He set a clear vision, strategy and goals. He created shared accountability across his business unit and functional leaders. This environment allowed the collective Ford team to thrive and innovate in ways they had never dreamed possible. While there was a consistency of purpose and plan, the constant stream of learning and feedback internally and externally created ever-stronger plans, even in a crisis.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the entire leadership industry went into a tailspin, and then paralysis. All in-person leadership development training and conferences were canceled or postponed. Clients were not able to travel, spend money—or both. Many teams who had been working on leadership development were now either in crisis management mode or furloughed. At Linkage, we immediately sought ways to be most helpful to our clients, while still managing our own business. I consistently replayed Alan’s words, “You must always be working on a better plan.”

There is nothing easy about creating a better plan, but it is invigorating when the wheels of innovation begin moving more quickly. At Linkage, we sprinted to convert our live deliveries to virtual; we accelerated the launch timeline of new digital products; we massively ramped up our marketing outreach; and we began exploring partnerships that could make us stronger. For the first time in 25 years, we made the decision to take our Women in Leadership Institute™ virtual, quickly innovating to create a one-of-a-kind immersive learning experience—available 100% online. Now, as we begin to track our “better plan,” we have confidence that it will better meet the market demand for our evolving world, a world that will no longer look like it did pre-COVID-19. Here is what another senior account director emailed me:

We are laying the foundation for real traction ahead. I recognize and embrace the opportunity to pull Linkage forward, out of COVID, to bring our resources to a business climate that is going to need more of what we have to offer. You have my commitment to bring fully my energy, focus, and talent to the task ahead.”

3. Working together always works.

Alan’s exceptional management style is grounded in his commitment to bring together talented people, united by a vision, a plan, a process, and principles for working together. He believes a leader’s job is to bring the vision to life for people, equip them with the processes they need to get the work done, and keep them united and focused.

“Working together always works. It always works,” Alan said in our recent webinar together. “Everybody has to be on the same team. They have to be interdependent with each other.”

Alan’s Working Together principles and Business Plan Review (BPR) process forms the foundation of his leadership approach that fosters collaboration and interdependency. Weekly, the entire leadership team gathers to review the status of the organization against the current plan, and to determine what areas need special attention. Any identified risk to the plan gets immediate attention with a cross-functional team swarming the challenge to support any leader who requests it.

When I started to implement the BPR at Linkage in early 2020, we did not anticipate the imminent health and economic disaster that would plague our world and our business. But by mid-February, several of our leaders were bringing to the BPR meeting what they were starting to see in our external environment: a supply chain problem out of China; a global delivery postponed in Europe; conferences we were due to speak at being canceled with just a week’s notice. We identified a coronavirus special attention meeting that included 18 members of the leadership team, and we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. Our head of Operations forwarded me this message from one of her team members:

I just want to let you all know that I am here for you. We are a team…as we take this new challenge head on, we will really show not only to our clients and ourselves, but to Linkage as a whole, what a force we are and why what we do as a company is so important.”

Linkage’s research has found that Purposeful Leaders like Alan are the ones who rise above the rest and have a bigger impact on people, culture and business. In fact, companies that develop leaders who operate across the five commitments of Purposeful Leadership—Inspire, Engage, Innovate, Achieve and Become—enjoy 2x stronger revenue growth, 4x profit growth and 9x employee engagement.

Alan’s commitment to Purposeful Leadership paid off: Boeing arose from the 9/11 crisis and Ford successfully weathered the economic recession, both emerging stronger than their competitors, and once again becoming engines that fueled American prosperity.

 

THE NEXT CHAPTER

It will be many more months—maybe years—before we will be free from the threat of COVID-19. Until then, we are all working to redefine and recreate a future for our families, communities and organizations. As we move into the next 90 days of this crisis, we could all benefit from the guidance offered in Linkage’s Purposeful Leadership commitments and Alan Mulally’s BPR and Working Together Principles.

Alan himself looked to Henry Ford for inspiration, who said: “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”

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