Who Stays - Who Goes? Alan Mulally’s Proven Approach to Leadership Teams

In order to give Team Quotient (TQ) the best head start, the first thing a new CEO must examine is the leadership team, making sure the right ‘players’ are on the team. The new CEO needs to decide who to keep and who to retain. and if and when the bloodletting should begin.

I am going to posit a potentially controversial axiom: “Culture Trumps Talent”. While building a leadership team, the tendency is to focus on just securing the right talent. I believe, however, that the first focus should be on Team Culture. In my experience, some self absorbed ‘stars’ will naturally fall away if they can’t get along in the team culture. Most smart players, however, adapt and come to understand that working in a strong team culture is beneficial to themselves and to the company.

The other truism is that given a strong team culture, people usually rise to deliver their best work. This is why I usually advise leaders to assume that the requisite skills exist; giving people the chance to rise to the occasion is usually the best call.

An illustrative case comes from a great leader: when Alan Mulally was poached from Boeing to assume the CEO role at Ford, his imperative was to turn the company around. He evaluated each player and position in depth for skills, track record, attitude, and whether they could, indeed, operate under the “One Team” umbrella. Bryce G. Hoffman reflected this in his book American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company:

“He (Mullally) was trying to figure out where each of Ford’s executives could make the biggest contribution to the company’s turnaround effort. His first choice was in-house talent. He looked not only at their qualifications and technical expertise but also at whether they worked well with others. Mulally also needed to know that they had the stomach for the heavy lifting that lay ahead. Mulally sent an email to employees . . . “Working together to make the most of our global talent and resources is critical to our success,” he said. “I know I can count on you to join me in supporting the leadership team during this transition. This is a great company. This is a terrific team. We have the right leaders. Together we can do this!”

Despite the poor team track record under the previous Ford CEO, Mulally mostly kept the team intact, betting that they could take on a new team culture. He build this team culture methodically, with skill, patience, and aplomb. He bet on existing players. That bet turned out to be a good one. That existing leadership team, with the right attitude and culture, became a High Performance Team, and Mulally and Ford became the star of the American auto industry in the late 2000’s and early 2010’s, outperforming its competitors.

People First

Once the team is tried and tested, a new leader needs to craft a focus and agenda so that the team has clarity on direction. After assembling the right talent, communicating a clear vision and agenda is the next priority to achieve high Team Quotient. In my coaching of C-level executives, one of the first questions I ask is, “Have you identified the five to seven key agenda areas that you will personally drive to realize your vision? Have you communicated those and aligned the team?” Mulally understood the power of defining the agenda early on. Hoffman recounts one of Mulally´s first pieces of communication about the ‘team rules’:

“…As the executives took their places in black leather chairs around the cherry table, Mulally called their attention to a list of rules posted on the wall. There were ten of them.

  1. People first

  2. Everyone is included

  3. Compelling vision

  4. Clear performance goals

  5. One plan

  6. Facts and data

  7. Propose a plan, “find-a-way” attitude

  8. Respect, listen, help, and appreciate each other

  9. Emotional resilience…trust the process

  10. Have fun…enjoy the journey and each other

Mulally added to be no side discussions, no jokes at anyone else’s expense.”

Mulally didn’t just pay lip service to these ideas; he was dead serious. He was extraordinarily inclusive. That inclusiveness was contagious, and most team members got it, which perhaps accounted for the fact that there was very little turnover. It was these ‘rules’ that formed the underpinnings of the culture that led to Ford’s transformation and triumph.

The foundations to high TQ are to assemble the right talent, and if you take over an existing team, give them the benefit of the doubt to embrace the desired team culture. Then ensure that the clarity of vision and agenda is well imbibed throughout the team and organization. If you can get these essentials right, you are on your way to building a High Performance Team.

Douglas Gerber is Founder and CEO of Focus One, a consulting firm that helps leaders create High Performance Teams. After 23 years as a corporate executive, he developed a reputation for building successful teams. Later, as a consultant, he has personally worked with leaders from over 70 companies to develop their own winning Teams. Drawing from his own extensive background and 10 years of research, Douglas innovated the concept of “Team Quotient” (TQ). He is a thought leader in the area of team transformation. Learn more about Douglas and his upcoming book Team Quotient: How to Build High Performance Leadership Teams that Win Every Time on www.douglasgerber.com

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