People First… Love Them Up!

Smiling leader talking to employee

“People first… Love ‘em up” is a phrase that Alan Mulally has been consistently saying at work for more than 30 years. He said it as general manager of the multi-year project to develop the 777 aircraft at Boeing, he said it as CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, and he said it as CEO of Ford Motor Company as he led the turnaround that brought it back from the brink of bankruptcy to become one of the most profitable automotive companies in the world. When he retired from Ford in 2014, Alan was named by Fortune magazine as one of the top three leaders in the world.

“People first… Love ‘em up” is one of the foundational expected behaviors in the Working Together Leadership and Management System that Alan designed and employed at Boeing and Ford. In this article, we’ll also consider a second expected behavior on his list of Working Together principles and practices: Everyone is included. These two are important principles in the Working Together system that have the effect of connecting people and contributing to a culture of connection.

What does Alan mean by these phrases? How might they inspire us to become more effective leaders in our own workplaces?

Putting People First

“We use the word love too narrowly and need to genuinely care about the people we lead,” Alan wrote in a chapter he contributed to The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility by Marilyn Gist. “They are not pawns to be used to achieve goals, but human beings — love them up. Show them they matter.”

Over the past year, we’ve had extensive conversations with Alan as part of the research we’re doing for our next book on Connection Culture. We asked him about using the word “love” in the work context. He told us he would say to colleagues: “We’re going to create value for all the stakeholders and the greater good by working together. That means that every one of you is really important and we’re really glad that you decided to join us. Even more, we respect you so much. You’re a human being and you are worthy of respect and love. We’re going to treat you that way. … We’re going to include you on everything because we respect you. … We care what you think.”  In addition to actively and consistently including people, he talked about thanking them for their involvement, showing you appreciate them, and celebrating them.

Putting people first is about welcoming and harnessing the collected efforts of everyone. Alan is a big believer in widely disseminating information in all directions. About this, he has written: “We need to break down assumptions that only people at the top should know and oversee the organization’s strategic efforts, in fact what we need is transparency — genuine openness — about both what we are trying to accomplish and how we are doing.” At Ford, for instance, Alan’s Working Together system had practices and processes that ensured people throughout the organization — from the C-suite to the factory floor — were “in the loop.”

Alan is a stakeholder-minded leader and so “everyone” extends out beyond the organization itself. He feels that the views of stakeholders should be heard and considered. On the Boeing 777 project, teams working together, and with valuable input and feedback from the airlines, came up with innovations in a number of areas, including wing design, propulsion systems, flight deck and systems, materials, and passenger space.

Alan told us that he met with Ford’s stakeholders frequently to give them updates and get their feedback. This was important. As he wrote in The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility:

Rather than have us determine what is best for [stakeholders] and try to force it on them, we work together with them by including them in the development of the strategy and plan. That means we discuss our mutual goals and needs. As an example, every country has its own certification requirements for cars and planes. Differences like this are challenging when we are doing business globally. But by having the humility to include our international partners as we develop our plan (respecting their dignity as well as their views and systems), we are able to work together on compromises acceptable to all sides.

In Alan’s Working Together system, all people groups affected are valued and each stakeholder group must be satisfied. At Ford, this meant that customers, employees, dealers, investors, suppliers, unions/councils, and the community benefited.

In addition to Alan’s “Working Together Management System” chapter in Marilyn Gist’s excellent book, The Extraordinary Power of Leader Humility, we also recommend reading  an interview Alan did with Sarah McArthur for Leader to Leader titled “A Conversation with Alan Mulally About His ‘Working Together’ Strategic, Operational, and Stakeholder-centered Management System.”

How Are You Doing?

Alan’s comments raise several issues for leaders and managers:

  1. Do you genuinely care about the people you are responsible for leading? Do they feel you care? How can you tell?
  2. Do you regularly include, express appreciation to, thank, and celebrate the people you are responsible for leading?
  3. Do you show you care about the people you are responsible for leading by demonstrating that you are committed to creating a smart and healthy organizational culture that fosters connection?
  4. Do you include all stakeholders in discussions about what you are trying to accomplish and how you are doing so that their views can be represented and considered in decisions made?

Taking the time to answer these questions and identifying actions that need to be taken can help get your team off to a successful year ahead.

Katharine P. Stallard co-authored this article. 


Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

Be Sociable, Share!