Working Together

By Chuck Violand

Cleanfax Magazine – March 2014

When the Chief Executive Officer of a Fortune 500 company gives a talk on business, it tends to fill an auditorium. That’s exactly what happened when Alan Mulally, CEO of Ford Motor Company, met with a group of college students at the University of Georgia. Having guided Ford through the recent Great Recession without relying on bail-out money from the Federal Government, Mulally is understandably one of the most sought-after CEOs in the U.S.

Mulally’s presentation covered a wide range of topics including globalization, in-vehicle technology, selling cars to millennials, and even rumors about him leaving Ford for Microsoft. However, what I found most interesting was the emphasis he gave to the common sense lessons he learned from his parents growing up and those he learned as he was climbing through the ranks of business. These are lessons we can all use whether we’re running a Fortune 500 company or a two-man operation.

Mulally said, “One thing I learned from them [his parents] was that it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.” We’ve all heard this before, but it seems to resonate more when it’s said by the CEO of a large organization. He didn’t say it’s more important to be soft or weak. He said it’s more important to be nice. Effective business leaders know how to be firm and nice. They know how to hold themselves and other people accountable without being knuckleheads.

Every study imaginable reinforces that people work harder for those they like and respect than they do for those they simply respect. And people tend to like us more when we’re nice to them. So, by extension, being nice increases both productivity and profit.

The next piece of advice Mulally offered speaks directly to what I often reference from business expert, Marshall Goldsmith—the higher you go in an organization, the more your challenges become behavioral. Here’s what Mulally had to say: “Be terrific at the skill you’re doing right now, be open to the possibility of expanding those skills, and then just enhance and learn and develop your working together skills.”

Many of us were introduced to this concept when we were kids learning to play with others in the sandbox. We might have been skilled enough to build the biggest castles or make the coolest roads, but if we couldn’t make friends with the other kids in the sandbox, our monuments were going to come crashing down and somebody was going to end up crying. So we learned to play together.

In business, most of us are highly skilled in the work we do or we wouldn’t be in the positions of responsibility we are. But if we don’t master our “working together skills” and influence others to work effectively, we’ll never move beyond our current positions and our companies will never grow beyond their current sizes.

The fundamentals of business are no different than the fundamentals of life: be nice, master the things you love to do, and learn to play with others. You don’t even have to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company to do that.