Book Review: American Icon

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Some business books are didactic. They teach you a certain method or technique or trick to achieve some worthy goal. Other business books are history. History books tell the story of a major business achievement so you can learn from it.

American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Company by Bryce Hoffman is an excellent business history book. Whether your business is large or small, you can learn from how Alan Mulally put together his team and his plan and then stayed with the plan despite challenges of all kinds.

There’s a natural story arc to Alan Mulally’s time at Ford. Bryce Hoffman harnesses the energy of that arc and shares lots of details. You get insight into organizational change, labor negotiations, and corporate finance. Hoffman covered Ford as a journalist during Mulally’s time there. He could have written a book based on his notes and interviews from that time. That would be the easy way to a good book. Instead, he spent another year doing interviews and research. The result is a great book.

Besides the compelling story there are several things I liked about this book. Hoffman begins every chapter with a quote from Henry Ford. The quotes give you an ongoing look at how things have changed and not changed since Henry Ford’s time.

There aren’t many footnotes in this book, but they are helpful and short. For example, Hoffman tells us about the plan that Alan Mulally presented to Ford’s board. He supplements that with a footnote that gives you Alan Mulally’s first draft to himself.

On page 193, we learn that Mulally never got over Ford plowing under the success and culture changes that resulted in the Ford Taurus. In the 1980s, Ford CEO Don Petersen set up Team Taurus to create a car people would want to buy and drive. The success of the Taurus grew primarily from changes in the design process and the way departments worked together. The story is beautifully told in Richard Pascale’s book, Managing on the Edge.

We get to see Mulally’s mature style in action. But we don’t learn much about how he developed his leadership principles. That’s entirely appropriate for this book. If you want to know more about Mulally’s principles and how he developed them, there are two things you can read.

In her book, Insight, Tasha Eurich tells the story of Mulally’s first experience as a boss. A talented and hardworking subordinate quit because Mulally, at the time, was too much of a micro manager.

Working Together: 12 Principles for Achieving Excellence in Managing Projects, Teams, and Organizations by project management expert James P. Lewis tells the story of Mulally’s principles as he developed them at Boeing.

In a Nutshell

American Icon is a great book about a great story in American business. It is superbly written so you get to learn by looking in on one of the great business turnarounds.


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