Ford’s Drive for Balance

The auto giant is test-driving a new approach to work-life issues: Let family and friends, as well as business colleagues, evaluate your performance. The goal: “Total Leadership for the New Economy.”

Keng Hsueh stared at the results of his performance appraisal. Here he was, a marketing manager in Ford Motor Co.’s North American car-business office — and, he thought, handling things quite well.


But his reviewers disagreed. Hsueh was “isolated,” one wrote. A “workaholic,” another commented, remarking on the 41-year-old executive’s lack of interaction and involvement.

Sure, sometimes we just don’t measure up. But this particular feedback came from Hseuh’s own family and friends. Their evaluation of his roles as father, husband, and community participant counted toward his overall assessment as a leader at Ford.

Now, that’s a 360-degree review. It’s a component of Ford’s latest, most intriguing experiment in leadership development. Called “Total Leadership for the New Economy,” the four-month training scheme aims to blow up traditional definitions of work culture.

The basic idea: We all operate in three domains — work, home, and community. Our actions and effectiveness in one sphere necessarily affect our results in the others. “Total” leaders take advantage of the connections. They align the expectations of coworkers, customers, family, and others, succeeding simultaneously in all three spheres.

“There’s a crying need here to do something about stress and overload,” says Stewart Friedman, who, for the past two years, has directed Ford’s leadership programs while on leave from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “We need to learn new models and practices for how to thrive in this brave, new world in ways that start with the whole person.”

That’s an unwieldy conceit for Ford. On the one hand, old Henry Ford himself was a “whole person” guy, though he would have curled his lip at the phrase. Ford basically invented the (then shorter) 40-hour week and the (then much higher) $5-a-day wage, theorizing that employees who earned more and had more free time would buy and drive more of his cars.


Today, most employees intuitively understand how work seeps into life and vice versa: Chaos at home, in the form of a dying parent or an absent baby-sitter, affects performance on the job. “You can’t draw a fine-line distinction that says, ‘I’m going to be a worker at work and a father at home,’ ” says Jonas Saunders, 30, a Ford corporate-litigation attorney and Total Leadership participant. Yet, Ford is a notably conservative organization whose managers have been reared to value long workdays and consistent face time.

Why should Ford change? Because today, employers live or die on talent, and talented people increasingly crave jobs that allow them their lives. The Internet, email, and wireless communications increasingly allow employees flexibility — but they all require rethinking the terms of work and the workplace. That’s what Friedman wants: leaders who will transform work in ways that afford employees saner lives and that improve business results.

Example: For the first Total Leadership class last December, Susan Bock, 41, studied the way that her e-commerce team was working as it planned a pilot retail store in San Diego. Traditionally, Ford would have moved employees full-time to the pilot site; the team would have met weekly, in person, with architects and its outside marketing agency.

But Bock had free rein to design the work any way she wanted. So she and her two subordinates stayed put in Dearborn, Michigan, using videoconferencing and conference calls to hook up with outside contractors. She dramatically reduced both her group’s travel expenses and the time that she and her employees spent away from their families. Incidentally, Bock also began volunteering at her son’s preschool and emailing his teacher regularly. Technology, she found, could change the terms of her work and life.

Hsueh, the workaholic marketing manager, found a way to improve his results at work, at home, and in his community simultaneously. He invited his son’s eighth-grade class to tour an exhibition of future technologies that Ford was tinkering with and then got them to participate in an ongoing online focus group. Ford got a quicker, cheaper, teenaged “think tank,” the school loved the idea of exposing its students to technology, and Hsueh’s 13-year-old son thought that his dad was, for once, way cool.

The Total Leadership program is still evolving, even as the third group of more than 25 participants prepares for the first of its two in-residence phases of the program in Dearborn. At the heart is the action-learning project, intended to force managers to think across the spheres of their lives. The project is reinforced by classes on advanced technologies, work design, and work-life balance. The “multi-rater assessment,” including reviews from spouses, friends, and ministers, has been dropped from the current session but will be revived later.


After graduation, participants are asked to return to subsequent classes as project-team coaches. They’re also required to spread the total-leadership word, both “mentoring up” to their bosses and collaborating with peers and subordinates to rethink work options. As a newly minted total leader, “I am the role model” for other employees, Bock says. “This taught me that I don’t have to wait for permission.”

No one has any delusions that total leadership will be a quick sell. “We are emissaries. But this is unexplored territory for most people here,” says Paul Jee, 48, a product-marketing manager based in the United Kingdom. “There’s a certain amount of trepidation about working differently. It’s going to take a while for the company to recognize that this is valuable.”

The hopeful indicator, of course, is that the Total Leadership program exists at all. In fact, Friedman says that Ford Motor Co. CEO Jacques Nasser and other executives support the notion of applying work-life sanity to competitive advantage.

“That’s what was eye-opening,” says attorney Saunders. “Here’s this huge company encouraging you to recognize that the lines between work and life are blurred, that it’s okay to take care of a personal issue at 4 PM — and that if you’re getting results, it doesn’t matter.”

Contact Stewart Friedman by email (