Abraham Lincoln has been credited with first saying, "Don't swap horses midstream."
Now Ford Motor Co. — the maker of the Mustang, the bringer-back of the Bronco and the owner of a brand named Lincoln — is changing CEOs in the middle of a pandemic that is taking a tremendous toll on people and their livelihoods.
But Executive Chairman Bill Ford told me he had no hesitation about making the change from Jim Hackett to Jim Farley in COVID-scarred 2020.
"Since I've been chairman, I think I've been through six crises — probably a record," he said last week. "Each one is different, and each one feels like it will never end — but they do end. And so ... you have to stick to your plan; you have to make your decisions for the long term."
Part of the long-term plan when Hackett was chosen as CEO three years ago was to help groom a successor. Farley not only outlasted Joe Hinrichs to claim the COO job, he's thrived in it — leading the company through an unprecedented manufacturing shutdown and restart, as well as shaping the strategies around the exciting new vehicles that he's going to get to sell as CEO. And Farley knows — and is known by — his executive team, so he can hit the ground running in a way that Hackett or Alan Mulally could not.
I first met Jim Farley back in his Toyota days, and one thing that stands out from his peers is his openness.
In a field where most refuse to admit weakness or doubt, he sometimes tells stories about loss and pain. It could be about the drug overdose death of his cousin, the over-the-top comic actor Chris Farley, or having to take the car keys away from his aging father.
Or how he could sense from UAW members' body language when it was time to halt production.
I asked Bill Ford if that ability to connect with people is what the company really needs now as it begins crucial launches while branching into new technologies and business models.
"If that's all Jim was, it wouldn't work," Ford said. "We really need a hard-nosed businessperson, and he's that, too. We have a lot of tough choices to make as a company — as does every company that's in our field — a lot of big bets to make. And we need to do it with a very clear-eyed view of what we think the future holds."
Farley's rise hasn't been a straight line. He's stumbled in some roles and bruised a few feelings along the way. But Bill Ford — like Hackett — said he's seen Farley learn and grow.
"If I didn't see it, he wouldn't be CEO," said the man who gets judged by the CEOs he chooses.
In this one, he said, he's got an old-school car guy who has a deep understanding of how technology is changing society and the industry.
"In terms of understanding both where we've come from and where we're going, I think he's the best that I've seen."