How to Get Honest Feedback: Alan Mulally

Illustration by Neal Fox

First, you’ve got to want it. A lot of people don’t want to get bad news. If you don’t want to know what’s going on and you don’t make it safe to know, then you won’t know. You’ve got to want it.

When I joined in 2006, the most important thing was to help Ford pull together around a new plan. Every Thursday the entire team would meet for 2½ hours to look at plans. The first forecast we had was for a $17 billion loss. And yet when I looked at the charts at the Thursday meeting they were all green, which meant things were going well.

Illustration by Neal Fox

At the next meeting one of the leaders was having trouble with a launch of new vehicles and up came this chart that was red. Everybody looked at me to see if I would be OK with that. I asked everybody what they could do to help get the launch back on track. The next week the charts looked like a rainbow because everybody knew it was now safe to reflect the real situation. From then on, we moved from wondering what the status was to turning the reds to greens. If I had been aggressive when that red came up, asking what was going to be done about it, then I would have kept on getting greens.

You have to make honest feedback a positive experience. It was almost like that red was a gem. We had found an issue that needed special attention. I had to demonstrate with my behavior that I welcomed it: “That’s great visibility. Thank you for sharing. What can we do to help you out?” I’ve been in environments where it’s not as safe to share. You can’t improve if you don’t know what the real situation is. Finally, you’ve got to act on it. If you get honest feedback and do nothing about it, then the feedback will stop. — As told to Diane Brady