Mark Fields’ ouster as CEO of Ford yesterday is another example, if anyone needed one, of just how hard it is to lead a company in the midst of disruptive change. The auto industry is actually riding the waves of three separate disruptions, all at the same time: electric engines, ride sharing, and autonomous vehicles. Fields enthusiastically embraced all three, investing in a Silicon Valley research center, becoming a regular at the CES tech fest, and talking of making Ford a “mobility company,” with one foot firmly in the present and one boldly in the future.
But shareholders weren’t buying it. The stock was down 40% since he became CEO, and Tesla recently surpassed Ford in market cap—despite the fact that Ford made $4.6 billion last year, while Tesla lost more than half a billion. (Here’s what Fields told Fortune recently about that.) Apparently, the markets will listen to Elon Musk’s futuristic musings all day long, but Fields’ were seen as a distraction from the business at hand. Company chairman Bill Ford told the Wall Street Journal he feared the “one foot in today one foot in tomorrow” mantra may have splintered the company culture. “We don’t want competing groups,” he said. “We don’t want one group to feel like they’re the cool group and the other group is left out.”
There’s lots of coverage on this this morning, but my favorite is this piece from Wired. It notes that while Fields talked of making Ford a “mobility” company, the company’s efforts sometimes “felt like tactics in search of a strategy.” And it’s unclear how naming the head of its “smart mobility” unit, Jim Hackett, to replace Fields will solve that.
“If there’s one takeaway from Ford ditching Fields,” Wired concludes, “it’s that in our current transportation environment, ‘mobility’ isn’t so much a strategy as it is a euphemism for ‘we have no idea what’s happening next.’”