Ford CEO talks X's and O's of leadership with Michigan's Jim Harbaugh

Hackett, in a 2015 photo, did a brief stint as Michigan's interim athletic director. Photo credit: UM Athletic Department

Imagine GM CEO Mary Barra plays on Ohio State's offensive line.

That's basically how Jim Hackett pictures her.

The Ford Motor Co. CEO says he got the idea from his football coach at the University of Michigan, the late Bo Schembechler. Hackett, a backup center on Schembechler's powerhouse teams in the mid-1970s, was a guest on this week's episode of "Attack Each Day," a weekly podcast hosted by Michigan's current coach, Jim Harbaugh, and his father, Jack.

Hackett explained one of Schembechler's motivational strategies: "He would have your position and your name, 'Jim Hackett,' and he'd have the center from Ohio State, and he'd say, 'Are you going to outplay him today?' So I do this thing where I go, 'Is Jim Hackett going to outplay Mary Barra today?' "

He continued: "Is Clare Braun, my chief of staff who's here today, is she better than the people at Chrysler? He made you see that competing was what you had to get yourself ready to do."

Since replacing Mark Fields as CEO in May 2017, Hackett has talked repeatedly of the need to improve Ford's "fitness," so it can "compete and win." It's clear that his football days were a major influence in how he has approached the business world, in 20 years running the Steelcase furniture company and now in his time at Ford. In between, Hackett did a brief stint as Michigan's interim athletic director and hired Jim Harbaugh to resurrect the Wolverines' troubled football program.

Hackett was a a backup center on Bo Schembechler's powerhouse Michigan football teams of the mid-1970s,

Hackett was hailed as a hero in Ann Arbor for nabbing Harbaugh and reversing other unpopular moves by his predecessor, but things haven't quite played out on the field as many fans had hoped. Harbaugh logged a 28-11 record in his first three seasons and has yet to beat Michigan's chief rival, Ohio State.

Meanwhile, just a short distance away, it's tough to argue that Hackett is outplaying Barra, at least on the scoreboard that Wall Street and other outsiders can see. Ford's stock price is down, analysts have been agitated by vague messaging, and Hackett has launched a turnaround effort that's more extensive and costly than many experts had anticipated.

Hackett said Harbaugh's critics are misguided and short-sighted. "If I hear that," Hackett said, "I ask them if they know football."

Hackett's comments left the impression that he, similarly, hasn't been rattled by the mounting questions about his leadership of Ford and intends to keep barreling forward, demanding patience from stockholders and employees.

Hackett said he often listens to sports talk radio while commuting from Ann Arbor to Dearborn and grows agitated by callers criticizing Harbaugh, who opens his fourth season this weekend as a one-point underdog against Notre Dame.

"One of the things I worry about is I'm going to call in one day," Hackett said near the end of his hourlong appearance on the Harbaughs' podcast. (The episode, released Tuesday, was titled "Think Ford First" and also revealed that Hackett gave Harbaugh a Mustang convertible this summer.)

"I can't take some of the mythical -- they don't understand how good we are, how great we have it, so I hold back," Hackett said. "They won't give him enough credit for what he's done since he's here."

You can reach Nick Bunkley at nbunkley@crain.com -- Follow Nick on Twitter: @nickbunkley

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