FORTUNE — Ford is undertaking leadership succession that could be tricky, fraught with drama and ultimately decisive as to Ford’s competitiveness.
The company’s board is reportedly considering Mark Fields, 51, to succeed Alan Mulally as the automaker’s next chief executive officer. Fields’s main task will be to prove he can perpetuate the change in corporate culture initiated by Mulally, 67, who is approaching retirement. Since 2006, when he was hired from Boeing, Mulally has imposed a collaborative management style for Ford’s top executives, a departure from the automaker’s history of internal combativeness.
Fields, who is reportedly about to be promoted to Ford’s chief operating officer, is being chosen in part for his willingness to lead according to the new cultural norms, which have helped the automaker regain financial stability after near-bankuptcy in the 2008 financial crisis. Fields is currently running Ford’s business in the Americas, which has been profitable.
Ford has declined to confirm widespread reports that the board was preparing to name Fields to a new post, positioning him as Mulally’s successor. Ford also has sidestepped questions about Mulally’s retirement, except to quote executive chairman Bill Ford’s invitation to stay indefinitely.
For directors and major shareholders, Mulally’s retirement would be a loss – yet failing to provide a transparent succession plan carries hazards as well. In any event, Mulally’s impact on the organization has been profound.
“Mulally replaced the ‘great leader’ model of CEO for the ‘wise coach’ model,” said David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Ford’s board of directors has to be certain that the culture doesn’t revert to the old way of bickering that characterized the old regime.”
Fields was Ford’s top executive when it was affiliated with Japanese automaker Mazda and earlier served in South America. One of the oft-told tales about the early days of Mulally’s tenure is that Fields was one of the first to be willing to admit operational difficulties in front of the CEO and other executives. Prior to Mulally, such an admission would have been interpreted as weakness and possibly career-damaging.
“One of the interesting aspects of Fields is that he was part of the old system,” said Robert Pasick, an Ann Arbor-based psychologist and executive coach. “It wasn’t clear that he was going to survive Mulally. He must have proved his worth.”
One news report from Reuters, citing an unnamed source, says that Mulally could serve on the Ford (F) board for some period as non-executive chairman after Fields takes over as CEO. The board would risk alienating Fields and create uncertainty as to who was running the company.
A Detroit-based automotive consultant who declined to be identified said “it’s hard to say when Mulally is leaving, but being as thoughtful as he is you can be sure there is a plan and he’s going to execute it flawlessly.”
The plan, said the consultant, likely entails a resolution of Ford’s troubled European operations, which lost $404 million in the second quarter and are likely to lose more through the end of 2012. “He wants to be sure to set up the next guy for success,” said the consultant, noting that Ford has been able to put in place a plan for action in China that can make the company more competitive there.
Equity analysts have told Ford that its shares are selling at a significant discount to their potential because the automaker hasn’t proved it can avoid multi-billion dollar losses in Europe. Once that continent is fixed, Alan Mulally could be in a position to hand the keys to Mark Fields – while both enjoy a much richer price for Ford stock.