Business and Leadership Lessons From One of America’s Top Turnaround Executives

You may not have heard of Alan Mulally, but he’s led one of the best turnarounds in modern American business history.

As Chief Executive for nearly 8 years at Ford Motor Company, he steered the company through the Great Recession (without taking a bailout), restructured the massive corporation to get the company more focused and streamlined, returned the company to profitability, and doubled the company’s stock price during his 8-year tenure as CEO. And he didn’t do it just by cutting jobs and laying thousands of people off.

Ford stock price performance under MulallyFord stock price performance under Mulally

And since his days at Ford, he was rumored to be in the running to replace Steve Ballmer at Microsoft, and later, to be President Trump’s Secretary of State. He currently sits on Board at Google (now Alphabet) and the Mayo Clinic Board of Trustees.

Alan Mulally (Image Source)

I’m not here to write his resume or publish a biography or write a blog post about his accomplishments. I mention these accomplishments because it’s the details that led to the turnaround that most people don’t know about.

Mulally came into a bleak situation at Ford, and 2 years later the great recession began. Yet Ford was the only US automaker to not accept a bailout. And he returned the company to record profitability.

Here’s how Mulally turned the company around, and what every manager can learn from him.

From Boeing to Ford

Mulally didn’t have an automotive background before coming to Ford. In fact, he wasn’t even a Ford employee. He was CEO of Boeing Commercial Airlines, leading the turnaround in that division and making Boeing more competitive with Airbus.

So without a background in the automotive industry and with no prior work history at Ford, his first job at Ford was CEO.

Starting as CEO

In September 2006, Executive Chairman and CEO Bill Ford called Mulally to ask him to run Ford. Mulally knew that Ford was a great American company, and that he couldn’t turn down the opportunity to serve an “American icon”.

He came to Ford on a mission – to save a great American company.

So what was the first day at Ford like for Mulally, who never worked at Ford, and didn’t even drive a Ford car at the time? What situation did he find himself in?

  • He drove into the company garage full of non-Ford vehicles. That’s right – all of the Ford employees that parked in the company garage didn’t even drive Ford cars. In short: they weren’t eating their own dog food.
  • His finance people told him that Ford was projected to lose $17 billion in 2006.
  • Ford was regionalized. There were Ford offices around the world, but none of them talked to each other. There was no synergy. None of the intellectual capability of Ford – the engineering, marketing, manufacturing – was shared.
  • And the contracts with the union (known as the United Auto Workers) essentially meant that they couldn’t produce cars in the United States profitably. The workers had a good salary and great pensions, all of which meant that the cost of goods sold increased to the point where already low-margin vehicles were unprofitable.
  • Their cars weren’t “best in class” and consumers knew it. The Ford brand itself was hurting. (Remember the acronym Found On Road Dead?)
  • Ford Motor Company was not focused on, well, Ford. They were a “house of brands” that included Jaguar, Aston Martin, Land Rover, Volvo, and owned a 33% equity position in Mazda. Those brands were just “additions” to the Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln line of vehicles. This “family of brands” had 97 different vehicles. As Mulally says, “you can’t be world-class in 97 different things.”

The Ford homepage at the time Alan Mulally began as CEO

The condition sounds pretty bleak doesn’t it? And nothing like the Ford of today.

And so the rebuilding began. Mulally picked apart the business, finding each problem, and fixing each one. In many cases, this simply meant making a process or operation more streamlined and efficient. Bureaucracy was removed, blaming others wasn’t allowed, and team working wasn’t just encouraged, it was the culture.

Regionalized offices that weren’t communicating were now working together. And this new cohesive team looked at the situation honestly – a projected $17 billion loss – the biggest loss in its 103-year history. That crisis allowed them to pull together around a new strategy. They developed the strategy together by focusing on the Ford and Lincoln brand (Mercury was later discontinued), and producing the entire family of vehicles (cars, utilities, trucks) to be produced profitably and, as Mulally frequently says, best in class.

Everyone pulled together on this new plan and began executing. And they were going to do it all as one team. That’s what Mulally emphasizes – creating a plan, sticking to it, and working together as a team. Everyone is accountable to each other, and they help each other out when necessary.

The Plan to Turn Around a Company – On Four Bullet Points

The new plan included these four bullet points:

  • Aggressively restructure to operate profitably at the current demand and changing model mix
  • Accelerate development of new products our customers want and value
  • Finance our plan and improve our balance sheet
  • Work together effectively as one team

Mulally printed it on wallet cards and distributed them to every Ford employee. Business plan on one side of the card, behaviors they expected on the other side.

The wallet-sized cards that each Ford employee received

He mentioned the bullet points constantly in meetings and with the press. And if you were around him enough, you’d likely be able to recite the four bullet points in your sleep.

Journalists covering the auto industry and Ford were tired of hearing it. But Mulally sticks to plans, even if people are tired of hearing them. If the goals of the plan aren’t achieved, he will continue to bring them up.

Listening to Your Critics

Every prominent company has their fair share of critics. Ford wasn’t any different. The Ford brand was severely damaged. The public viewed Ford vehicles as unreliable, with many referring to Ford with the acronym Fix Or Repair Daily. And Consumer Reports ranked them as one of the most unreliable car brands.

So what did Mulally do?

He met with Ford critics, namely he took his team to meet with Consumer Reports, who were one of the top critics of Ford vehicles.

Mulally and his team traveled and met with Consumer Reports product testers and discussed every Ford model. Product testers were critical. Mulaly didn’t argue with them or try to convince them otherwise. Instead, he used the trip to listen and understand their complaints. Mulally was grateful for the “unvarnished feedback” from the product testers.

A lot of companies live in silos and protect themselves from outside feedback. They make products without consumer input, and don’t talk to customers when they’re improving products or features. They build things nobody wants. Or worse, they’ll build something unreliable. That’s the fastest way to damage your brand.

Instead, take a lesson from Mulally. Find your legitimate critics (the ones who want you to succeed, but will give you a fair assessment) and listen to their criticism. Take it to heart and you’ll end up improving your product and processes.

The Weekly Business Plan Review Meeting

Mulally is an engineer by training. That engineering mentality means that he likes numbers. He likes to say that “the data will set you free”.

Data doesn’t lie and it doesn’t spin. It’s just facts that cannot be argued. And because of this, it’s great for showing progress and holding people accountable. Everything his executives managed could be deciphered down to numbers.

This data was used during the weekly Business Plan Review (BPR) meetings. These meetings, which took place every Thursday morning, brought Ford executives from around the world to discuss their departments and the progress they’re making on the business plan.

Bryce Hoffman, author of American Icon, explains the meetings:

Mulally’s management system, which he developed at Boeing, set clear and measurable goals for every aspect of the business. Each executive was required track their division or department’s progress against those plan goals and present it at a weekly “Business Plan Review” meeting.

The data was presented without explanation or excuses. It was also color-coded. Anything that was on plan was green, anything that was off plan was red and anything that was in danger of becoming red was highlighted in yellow.

Any issues identified in these sessions would be dealt with in a follow-up meeting known as a “Special Attention Review.” Here, discussion was allowed—but not recriminations or personal attacks. Mulally would say, “So-and-so has a problem, but he isn’t the problem. Who can help him fix it?” But this weekly return to the numbers also allowed him to enforce accountability.

The Ford Thunderbird Room, where the BPR meetings took place every Thursday morning at 8AM.

Here’s what every manager can learn from this:

How do you measure progress against your plan? Does your team know the progress? Are they working together and helping each other when necessary? Many companies like Google and Intel like to use the Objectives and Key Results framework to create goals and track them.

Creating a plan is great, but most organizations and teams don’t stick to it over a long enough time period. They hit the first road bump against the plan, and end up leaving the plan altogether.

As Mulally says, “We never give up on the plan. A plan is going to be the innovator for us to find new ways to find more opportunities to meet the plan and mitigate the risk. So it’s the all-time encourager of us to use our innovation to find solutions to allow us to deliver the plan rather than to give up.”

Working Together as One Team

“Working together” sounds pretty trite, doesn’t it?

It’s an overused term for executives, managers, and coaches. And lieutenants of those in management typically roll their eyes when they hear it from their superiors.

Yet Mulally didn’t just say, “we have to work together”. He created a culture of teamwork.

Before he came to Ford, there was infighting and elbowing among executives. Forbes described the culture Mulaly came into as, “Sharp elbows, fierce loyalties, and frequent turf battles were hallmarks of Ford’s management culture: The tough guys won.”

In response to this toxic culture, Mulally created the “One Ford” mantra. The wallet-sized cards were handed to every Ford employee and the weekly BPR meetings got all the executives on onboard and helping each other when they needed it.

During those BPR meetings, each executive brought an employee from his or her department to sit in on the meeting. And they don’t remain silent, sitting like students in a classroom. They are required to listen and give feedback.

Mulally and his executives often ask these employees for their thoughts and reflections on what is being discussed. Mulally says:

“We introduce the guests, who sit behind the team member that invited them, and we ask them for their reflections and thoughts. The guests might be an engineer or someone from down on the factory floor. So, all this data is flowing up, but then all the results are also flowing down. It is going back and forth every week at these meetings. And at the end of the meeting, the comments you hear from the guests make your eyes water. They say, ‘My gosh, this is so big, so vast. We’re in every country. I want to contribute to the plan as soon as I get back.’ I have heard many guests say that.”

Bringing the “lower-level” employees to the executive boardroom probably doesn’t happen at most of the world’s biggest companies. But Mulally understood how valuable these people are – and how the people “working the floor” and meeting one-on-one with customers and being hands on with the product can provide feedback that most executives cannot. This feedback inspires executives and the employees themselves. This sense of teamwork inspires everyone in the company to deliver results.

Understand the Value Proposition of the Company

What are you in business for? How do you make people’s lives better? How is the world better off because of your company? That’s what a value proposition should answer.

Mulally didn’t create a new value proposition for the company. Instead, he found the original one written by the company’s founder, Henry Ford.

When Ford started, owning a car was reserved for the wealthy. Most people couldn’t afford to own a vehicle. Henry Ford’s mission was to change that and to “open the highways to all mankind.”

1925 Ford advertisementThis advertisement appeared in the January 24, 1925 issue of the Saturday Evening Post (Image Source)

Mulally believed in this value proposition so much that he hung it in the hallway of Ford’s headquarters and handed out copies to Ford executives. And all future product development would be weighted against the promise made in this value proposition. It may have been a value proposition created 80 years ago, but Mulally loved its message and what it promised. (If you haven’t caught a theme of this article, it’s that Mulally sticks to a plan).

Mulally with a painting of the advertisement

In keeping this value proposition alive nearly 100 years later, Mulally ensured that Henry Ford’s DNA and original vision would guide the company.

The takeaway here would be to truly understand your company’s value proposition and let it guide your future product development.


Starting a company and building it into a success story is quite a challenge, but taking over a company that’s damaged and returning it to the former glory days is a unique challenge and one that few modern executives have accomplished.

So, what was the method to Mulally’s success?

Was it his 12-hour workdays?

Nope, plenty of executives work hard and don’t deliver results.

Was it luck?

Anything but luck! Entering a company losing billions of dollars every year, then the Great Recession two years later and turning that same company into 19+ consecutive profitable quarters isn’t luck.

Mulally’s ideas weren’t new. Instead, it was sticking to those business fundamentals – teamwork, business plans, and delivering useful products that made Ford successful.

It was Mulally doing extensive research to understand Ford’s issues, and creating a plan (and sticking to it) and delivering results against that plan. It was the brutal honesty of being an outsider and assessing a company with a fresh eye. His inexperience in the auto industry but strong management skills are what made this turnaround special.

And it was Mulally’s commitment to a plan and people. As an engineer, he wasn’t expected to be a people-person. But he was – personable but tough. People who have spoke with Mulally say that he “makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room”. This kindnes


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Why Search Agencies Should Embrace the Adjacency of Email Marketing

Posted by davidmihm

As someone who’s spent virtually his entire career in local search, I’m by no means an early proponent of email. But in my interactions at marketing conferences, studies of industry research, and social media conversations, I get the feeling that many of my peers are even further down the adoption curve than I’ve been.

With this post, I encourage you to take a hard look at email marketing for yourselves, or an even harder look if you’ve already done so. If you’ve focused exclusively on offering SEO and SEM services to clients in the past, I hope I’ll convince you that email should be a natural and profitable complement to those offerings.

And if you’re a local business reading this post, I hope many of these points convince you to take a look at email marketing yourselves!

Making the case for email

High ROI

With a return on investment (ROI) of 44:1, marketers consistently rate email as the top-performing channel. According to Campaign Monitor, that ROI has actually increased since 2015, and it’s particularly true for B2B companies. Despite the supposed unpopularity of email among millennials, it remains far and away the most-preferred channel by which to receive communication from a business.

Just plain cheap

The fact that email’s so cheap helps the denominator of that 44:1 stat a bunch. Mailchimp is free up to 2,000 subscribers, as are MailerLite and SendinBlue, and many other providers offer plans under $10/month depending on your number of subscribers.

It’s also cheap in terms of time cost. Unlike social media where daily or even hourly presence performs best, email allows you to duck in and duck out as you have time.

As far as the numerator, average open rates far exceed social media reach on most platforms. And even if they don’t open, ⅓ of people report purchasing based on an email they received from a brand (!). Search provides better purchase intent, but the top-of-mind awareness and referral potential from email is unmatched.

Makes other channels more effective

Gathering customer email addresses is essential for other critical forms of local business marketing already — you need an email address to ask for a review, build lookalike audiences, and make customer intelligence solutions like FullContact most effective.

Actually offering something of value, whether that’s a discount code, loyalty program, whitepaper, or newsletter subscription, increases the odds of earning that email address for all of those purposes.

Last best option?

Frankly, the number of organic digital channels available to small businesses is shrinking. Facebook’s latest announcement signals a tough road ahead there for businesses without the budget to Boost posts, and Google’s expansion of its Local Service Ad program to verticals and locales across the United States in the next couple of years seems inevitable to me. Now is the time to start building an email program as these monetization pressures intensify.

Why agencies should offer email

Your customers know it works.

Local businesses might be more aware of email’s potency than some of the agencies that are serving them. Email consistently rates among the top three marketing channels in industry surveys by the Local Search Association, StreetFight, Clutch, and more.

At the very least, email requires barely any client education. Unlike the black box of SEO or the complexity of PPC, by and large, small businesses inherently understand email marketing. They know they should be sending emails to their customers, but many of them just aren’t yet doing it, or are doing it poorly.

It’s a concrete deliverable.

Unlike so much of the behind-the-scenes work that leads to success in SEO, clients can actually see an email campaign delivered to their inbox, as well as the results of that campaign: every major Email Service Provider tracks opens and clicks by default.

It leverages existing offerings.

I already mentioned some of the ways that email marketing complements other channels above. But it can tie in even more closely to an agency’s existing content offering: many of you are already developing full content calendars, or at the very least social content.

<pitch>(For those clients whom you’re helping with social media, their newsletter can be built using Tidings with no additional effort on your part.)</pitch>

Building email into your client content strategy can help their content reach a deeper audience, and possibly even a different audience.

It’s predictable.

Though you could argue that the Gmail and Apple Mail interface configurations are algorithms of a kind, generally speaking, email marketing is not subject to wild algorithmic changes or inexplicable ranking fluctuations.

And unlike Google’s unrealistic link building axiom that great content will naturally attract inbound links, great content actually does naturally attract more subscribers and more customers as they receive forwarded emails.

You can expand it over time.

Unlike SEO for local businesses, which generally includes relatively easy wins up front and gets progressively harder to deliver the same value over time, email marketing offers numerous opportunities to expand the scope of your engagement with a client.

Beyond fulfilling the emails themselves, there are plenty of other email-related services to offer, including managing and optimizing list sign-up, welcome emails and drip campaigns, A/B testing subject lines and content, and ongoing customer intelligence.

Tactical ingredients for success with email

Use a reputable Email Service Provider.

Running an email marketing program through Gmail or Outlook is an easy way to get your primary address blacklisted. You also won’t have access to open rate or click rate, nor an easy way to automate signups onto specific lists or segments.

Be consistent.

Setting expectations for your subscribers and then following through on those expectations is a particularly important practice for email newsletters, but also holds true for explicitly commercial emails and automated emails.

You should be generally consistent with the day on which you send weekly specials, appointment reminders, or service follow-ups. Consistency helps form a habit among your subscribers.

Consistency also applies to branding. It’s fine to A/B test subject lines and content types over time, but don’t shoot yourself in the foot from a brand perspective by designing every email you send from scratch. Leave that kind of advanced development to big brands with full in-house email teams.

The other reason to be consistent is that designing for email is really, really difficult — a lesson I learned the hard way last year prior to launching Tidings. Complex email clients like Microsoft Outlook use their own markup languages to render emails, and older email clients can’t interpret a lot of modern HTML or CSS declarations.

Choose a mobile-first template.

Make sure your layout renders well on phones, since that’s where more than 2/3 of email gets opened. Two- or three-column layouts that force pinching and zooming on mobile devices are a no-no, and at this point, most subscribers are used to scrolling a bit to see content.

As long as your template reflects your brand accurately, the content of that layout is far more important than its design. Look no further than the simple email layouts chosen by some of the most successful companies in their respective industries, including Amazon, Kayak, and Fast Company.

Pick a layout that’s proven to work on phones and stick with it.

Include an email signup button or form prominently on your website.

It’s become a best practice to include social icons in the header and/or footer of your website. But there’s an obvious icon missing from so many sites!

An email icon should be the first one in the lineup, since it’s the channel where your audience is most likely to see your content.

Also consider using Privy or Mailmunch to embed a signup banner or popover on your website with minimal code.

The specific place of newsletters

Plenty of people way smarter than me are on the newsletter bandwagon (and joined it much earlier than I did). Moz has been sending a popular “Top 10” newsletter for years, Kick Point sends an excellent weekly synopsis, and StreetFight puts out a great daily roundup, just to name a few. As a subscriber, those companies are always top-of-mind for me as thought leaders with their fingers on the pulse of digital marketing.

But newsletters work far beyond the digital marketing industry, too.

Sam Dolnick, the man in charge of the New York Times’ digital initiatives, puts a lot of stock in newsletters as a cornerstone channel, calling them “a lo-fi way to form a deep relationship with readers.”

I love that description. I think of a newsletter as a more personalized social channel. In the ideal world it’s halfway between a 1:1 email and a broadcast on Facebook or Twitter.

Granted, a newsletter may not be right for every local business, and it’s far from the only kind of email marketing you should be doing. But it’s also one of the easiest ways to get started with email marketing, and as Sam Dolnick said, an easy-to-understand way to start building relationships with customers.

For more newsletter best practices, this ancient (1992!) article actually covers print newsletters but almost all of its advice applies equally well to digital versions!

A great option or a strategic imperative?

Facebook’s ongoing reduction in organic visibility, Google’s ongoing evolution of the local SERP, and the shift to voice search will combine to create an existential threat to agencies that serve smaller-budget local businesses over the next 2–3 years.

Agencies simply can’t charge the margin to place paid ads that they can charge for organic work, particularly as Google and Facebook do a better and better job of optimizing low-budget campaigns. More ads, more Knowledge Panels, and more voice searches mean fewer organic winners at Google than ever before (though because overall search volume won’t decline, the winners will win bigger than ever).

Basic SEO blocking-and-tackling such as site architecture, title tags, and citation building will always be important services, but their impact for local businesses has declined over the past decade, due to algorithmic sophistication, increased competition, and decreased organic real estate.

To grow or even maintain your client base, it’ll be critical for you as an agency to offer additional services that are just as effective and scalable as these techniques were a decade ago.

As a concrete, high-margin, high-ROI deliverable, email should be a centerpiece of those additional services. And if it just doesn’t feel like something you’re ready to take on right now, Tidings is happy to handle your referrals :D!

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In each of the past couple years, you’ve helped us break our own delivery records on Black Friday and Cyber Monday. And we’re pleased to announce that 2017 was no different: Between Nov. 20 and the new year, MailChimp customers sent more than 41 billion emails. Of those emails, a whopping 1.9 billion were sent on Black Friday and nearly 1.8 billion sent on Cyber Monday, besting our old records. Hashtag success.

Of course, the holiday season is about more than just sending emails. When you run your own business, your brain is occupied with everything from promo codes to day-to-day operations to marketing automations. (Might we suggest another brain to take care of that last part? We might!)

Here’s how the 2017 holiday season shaped up, by the numbers:

MailChimp customers located in the United States sent the most emails (19.8 billion), followed by customers in the United Kingdom (4 billion), Australia (1.9 billion), Canada (1.4 billion), and Brazil (1.2 billion).


During the holidays, MailChimp customers with e-comm connected stores generated almost $6 billion in online sales, up from $3.5 billion last year.


North America had the most revenue, raking in $4.5 billion, followed by Europe ($1 billion), Asia and the Pacific ($407 million), South and Latin America ($35 million), and Africa ($20 million).


There was a 34% increase from 2016 to 2017 in total emoji used by MailChimp customers during the holiday season. <img src="×72/1f384.png&quot; alt="