Perhaps you wouldn’t be surprised to know that a locomotive traveling 55 mph could crash right through a 5-foot-thick steel-reinforced concrete wall without stopping. But do you realize that the same train, starting from a stationary position, wouldn’t be able to roll over an inch-thick block placed in front of its driving wheel?
There’s an important lesson here that applies to your work as a leader: The size of your problem generally isn’t your problem. Instead it’s a lack of momentum that’s stalling you at the train yard. Without momentum, even the smallest obstacle can prevent you from moving forward. But with it you can plow through anything.
A couple of years ago I met Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Ford Motor Co. In 2006 Mulally took over a company that was $12.7 billion in the red and contemplating a federal bailout request. Only four years later, profits had jumped to $6.6 billion, the most in a decade. By the time he left Ford in July 2014, the automaker’s first-quarter net income was $989 million, marking the 19th consecutive profitable quarter. With the rest of Detroit reeling, Mulally had accomplished the turnaround without federal money.
Imagine my excitement when I got to sit down with him and ask how he did it. The answer was actually pretty simple. He asked his managers to file weekly color-coded status reports: green for good, yellow for trouble and red for failing.
Given Ford’s state, you would think Mulally saw all sorts of red in that conference room. But at his first meeting, he was inundated with green. Mulally looked at his team and asked how everything could be so good in a company that had just lost $12 billion. Surely there were a few problem areas that needed special attention.
But Mulally’s team refused to budge. No one wanted to report failure to the new CEO.
Still, Mulally stuck with the process. Finally, after a couple of weeks, one manager held up a bright red light, indicating problems with a new vehicle launch. All of the managers at the table held their breath, waiting to see how Mulally would respond.
He began to clap. Vigorously. Mulally knew he’d broken the culture of fear and blame that had permeated the company. He turned to the executive and asked what the group could do to help more. The manager briefly explained his situation, and within minutes his colleagues had rallied around the problem to offer solutions and resources to get the launch back on track.
At the next meeting, the room was a rainbow of green, yellow and red, and Mulally realized the turnaround had begun—not because the situation had changed, but because the attitudes had changed.
He later explained in an interview with National Public Radio’s Marketplace, “The minute that people don’t feel safe, the minute they get yelled at, or it’s them [and not the issue] that you’re going after, then everything will always be green and you’ll know nothing.”
I love that story because it highlights an important truth in leadership. Most people walk around flashing green lights even when they are struggling. They keep lying to themselves and others, and they keep failing. That institutional dishonesty prevented Ford’s momentum. Mulally had the vision, honesty and commitment to get people on his team. The shift in attitude and new feeling of corporate safety is what got the company chugging again.
Remove the Blocks to Momentum
Consider your own corporate culture and scrutinize your team for signs that people are being less than straightforward with you. If you need to make breakthroughs with your staff, consider these actions:
Set an expectation of clear accountability. It’s pretty tough to encourage accountability if no one knows what he or she is responsible for. Take away any confusing gaps in responsibility, and your people will adapt to new roles and grow in their current ones. The entire team will benefit. People are more likely to own up to a problem when they know what they own.
Recognize and applaud transparency. The moment Mulally clapped his hands and offered assistance rather than punishment to his struggling manager is the moment everything changed at Ford. In that instant, Mulally began to develop trust with his people. Without trust it is impossible to build relationships. Without relationships you cannot inspire change.
Focus on solutions. When your people learn that you are more concerned about solving problems than casting blame, you’ll win their confidence. Model a solution-oriented attitude, and your team will follow.
Unleash the resources of your team. Mulally demonstrated a very important aspect of leadership—getting people to work as a team. Each week the entire group took a grand view of all projects to determine what needed special help and who in the room could supply it. Mulally encouraged his managers to be generous with their time, expertise, resources and ideas; in other words, to act like a team. As the leader, you are in the best position to encourage this.
In physics, the first law of motion says that a body at rest will remain at rest, and a body in motion will remain at the same uniform speed unless an external force acts upon it. Consider your own company. Is it stuck? Is it inching along? Worse… is it speeding downhill?
You are the external force. Initiate the conversations that can spark a turnaround—discussions of clear accountability, teamwork, trust and transparency. That’s how momentum starts.