Magazine article Management Review

Ford Has a Better Management Idea

Magazine article Management Review

Ford Has a Better Management Idea

Article excerpt

Ford Has a Better Management Idea

Heralded by Fortune magazine as "the most successful boss since the original Henry in his prime," Donald E. Petersen served as Ford Motor Company's president from 1980 to 1985 and as chairman of the board and CEO from 1985 to 1990. His pioneering use of participatory management at Ford "taught the elephant to dance" and resulted in the biggest comeback ever in the U.S. auto industry--he oversaw an increase in market share from 17 percent to 22 percent.

Petersen accepted Business Month magazine's award selecting Ford as "one of the five best-managed companies of 1987." In 1989 he was named Chief Executive of the Year by Chief Executive magazine and received the National Management Association's Manager of the Year award. Since his retirement, he has written a book, "A Better Idea: Redefining the Way Americans Work," that was co-authored by John Hillkirk (Houghton Mifflin, 1991).

Petersen is a member of the boards of directors of Hewlett-Packard, Boeing and Dow-Jones. Robert A. Luke Jr., a Bethesda, Md.-based management consultant, recently caught up with Petersen in Washington, D.C., to discuss participatory management and the management changes it engenders.

Q. How did you get to the top at Ford?

A. The principal thing for individuals to keep in mind as they're moving through an organization is to take each job assigned to them as their primary thrust, and do that particular assignment as well as they possibly can without worrying, "Is someone moving faster than I am?" You must demonstrate you can do an outstanding job of whatever it is you were given to do.

Q. Is there one skill that you have found particularly useful in working with people?

A. It's a mental orientation: You must have a positive attitude. You must assume the other person wants to do a good job, wants to cooperate and join together in a common cause. I think a positive attitude leads people to take the initiative and makes it easier for others to work with you.

Q. What do people do that hinders their advancement?

A. They don't tell the truth. If people begin to doubt that you are presenting things in a truthful fashion, you won't have any effectiveness at all. Don't be political. As much as you might think others are getting ahead because they're shining somebody's shoes, it just doesn't last. I've seen more promising careers flame out because they weren't able to learn how to work well with other people.

Don't, whatever you do, brush aside your peers, or take all the credit for a team effort. Don't try to hog the limelight.

Q. In your book, you state that one reason Ford embraced participatory management in 1982 was that the company ranked dead last among the Big Three. Does it require a crisis before American executives will try participatory management?

A. There is an unfortunate correlation in human activity that if things are going well, it is hard to change. When it's very obvious there's a problem, this does create an environment where more and more people are open to change. I can't deny that the crisis atmosphere at Ford was a help in making people ready for change.

Q. Where did you find the most resistance at Ford?

A. Among older, middle managers. People who had received some promotions and were supervisors or low-level managers who didn't have the complete set of tools to become a high-level person. These people tend to have self-doubt and lack confidence because they see they are not continuing to grow. They tend to be more defensive in their thinking and more protective of what they do have.

After putting in a career of 25 to 30 years, people become accustomed to working in one fashion. That's why we found it was critically important to spend time retraining people and discussing the power of teamwork and involvement.

Q. How did you do that?

A. A lot of the education was done internally. …

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