24: Be Sure the Sleeves Match the Cuffs: Ford CEO Mark Fields

Ford CEO Mark Fields had to compete with two older brothers growing up, which forced him to aim high.

Ford CEO Mark Fields had to compete with two older brothers growing up, which forced him to aim high.

For Ford Motor Company CEO Mark Fields, the love of cars started early; he still remembers the set of Matchbox cars his dad bought him for his 6th birthday.  

Of course, love of cars alone wasn't going to get him to the helm of the second-largest U.S. automaker, and a brand that's been around for more than a century. That would take a mix of competitive spirit, adaptability, and a knack for getting teams to focus quickly. 

Mark Fields leads a company that last year sold more than 6.6 million cars, bringing in more than $141 billion from vehicle sales. In the era of Uber and Tesla that's getting harder by the day. 

I talked to Fields for Fortt Knox about his leadership philosophy, his motivation, and how he made it to the top. Here are a few highlights: 

Run to the Fire 

Fields was CEO of Ford's Mazda subsidiary in his late 30s, a stunningly fast ascent. How had he risen so quickly? He chalks it up to his eagerness to find tough problems and volunteer to solve them.  

"I've always had the philosophy, always run to the fire," he says. "Run to those really challenging situations or businesses that you can learn a lot, but also contribute a lot." 

Pull this off this a few times, and you're likely to get a reputation for making the bosses look good. When you've done that on high-profile projects, that's often a ticket to a promotion.  

Punch Above Your Weight 

I was curious about Fields's motivation. How had he developed his drive to succeed? 

"I'm the youngest of three boys," Fields says. "So listen, if you weren't fast at the kitchen table, or in sports, because you know, you get knocked around – that was part of it." 

Birth order isn't destiny. But for someone looking to fuel his ambition, it's one of many things he could draw on.  

Be Sure the Sleeves Match the Cuffs 

Several times in his career, Fields needed to quickly get a new team working toward a common goal. He has an interesting method for getting people to trust him when they barely know him: He'll take a half day and do a session on who he is and what he values. 

"So from the get-go, people can say, 'Oh, OK, I kind of get the gist of this guy. And so once you get that out of the way, then you can get on with the work. And then importantly, I have to live up to what I talked about in terms of my leadership. Because if the sleeves don't match the cuffs, people just think you're trying to manipulate them." 

It's a tailoring metaphor that works: If the sleeves don't match the cuffs, you've getting ripped off. Effective long-term leadership has to be authentic, too.