Dudder: Truth Telling

Columns From: 4/1/2006 Automotive Design & Production, , Contributing Editor

Recently, Bill Ford stated that “honesty must be on the table” if Ford is to survive its restructuring.

Recently, Bill Ford stated that “honesty must be on the table” if Ford is to survive its restructuring. He went on to say: “I can deal with anything, except the lack of truth.” A better use of the language would have had Mr. Ford telling his audience that he needs the “best information possible in order to make the right decisions.” Otherwise, he’ll find himself in the same boat as when he pledged to improve fuel economy, reduce emissions, and make Ford Motor Company a green car maker. We all know what happened. There is a cottage industry churning out press releases chronicling how Ford lied to the public, its vehicles desecrate the land, and all manner of doom and gloom will result. If there is any surprise in Mahogany Row at Ford’s Dearborn HQ, it must only be that the one who is surprised is, apparently, so naïve.

It is this same naïveté that thinks it’s a good idea to promote safety image leader Volvo in commercials about Ford innovation (which angers Ford engineers and confuses the public), or that welcomes new members of the founding family into the fold while the true depth of talent in the company grows thin, and loyal employees are shown the door. Naïveté that expects the public to believe things will change for the better when it still can’t get Jaguar off its back, or settle on a “this time we really mean it” plan for Lincoln, or denies that SVT has effectively—if not actually—been disbanded. Some call this “spin,” others say it’s “dissembling;” the most jaundiced and cynical call them “lies.” Yet the truth may be a structural need to protect the system because they feel stating the bare facts will destroy it. Sadly, these folks refuse to recognize that the system—the culture—at Ford collapsed decades ago. Only now has the bill come due.

The truth is that Ford needs leadership more than it needs some nebulous “truth.” And constant rumors that he wants to skip out on the job faster than Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride certainly hasn’t helped Bill’s image—or believability. Its next leader must re-establish a product planning organization with teeth, de-emphasize marketing, destroy the ever-present cult of personality, and recognize the sorry state of its powertrains so he can institute a long-term battle plan. This leader will demand each function work together for the betterment of the whole, and make swift, sure changes to see that it happens. Central to his success will be an honest and positive outlook (coupled with the ability to put aside his ego), pride in America’s unique heritage—warts and all—and a willingness to make sure this is reflected in the company’s vehicles, no matter their size or station. In other words, a leader—you asked for honesty, Bill—who, quite frankly, isn’t a Ford and isn’t bedeviled by the family’s interference. Short of taking Ford actually or effectively private—either entirely or by controlling 51% of the voting shares—the Fords, like the Quandt (BMW) and the Porsche families, should agree to let outsiders run the company, and steer clear of the boardroom and executive suites. But, truthfully, it will never happen.