The hit movie, Ford vs. Ferrari, tells the story of a partnership between famed American performance car designer Carroll Shelby and the Ford Motor Company. This joint venture came about to develop a Ford-branded race car for competition in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and beat Ferrari’s entrants – the race’s perennially winners. The story takes place in the mid-1960s when Ford sought to broaden their appeal and engage Baby Boomers, then in their late teens, with products like the new Mustang.
The plot weaves its way through the failed 1963 acquisition attempt of Ferrari by Ford, which fueled a racing rivalry between the two auto manufacturers. Ford Motor Company is portrayed as a traditional company hampered by bureaucracy; Carroll Shelby as an entrepreneurial, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants innovator. Though the partnership had plenty of ups and downs, the collaboration led to creation of the Ford GT40, which delivered four Le Mans victories from 1966 – 1969.
Notwithstanding dramatic representations of conflict and egos in the storyline, the movie offers some valuable leadership lessons. Here are my top three:
- Establish Clear Shared Goals Up-front when beginning a new project. Ford wanted to update their brand image to capture market share with Baby Boomers coming of age in the mid-1960s. Boomers wanted cool, sporty cars and Ford executives knew they had to address demand or lose share to competitors. Ford reasoned victories on the racetrack would translate to an uptick in brand perception. Beating Ferrari in races was important, but taking the checkered flag was part of a bigger goal – attracting new customers. Carroll Shelby wanted to build high-performance race cars that won races. He was innovative and pragmatic, seeking the best design and components to win races. The subtle difference between these two goals – winning car buyers vs. winning races – was the source of great frustration in the partnership.
In your work, you may have collaborated on a project with another department in your company. Their goal was to get the project done with the lowest price tag possible; yours was to deliver the best possible product to your customers. If you didn’t know you had different goals up-front, divergence may have fed dysfunction. Establishing clear, shared goals as a first step in collaboration increases the likelihood of a successful partnership.
- Define Cultural Values in Advance of Partnership – In the movie, Ford stressed the importance of a team victory while Shelby was portrayed valuing rugged individualism. These two approaches represent different cultural values.
Some organizations design incentives and rewards that encourage competition among colleagues while others tout sentiment like “there is no ‘I’ in team” to inspire working together. By defining your company’s cultural values around inclusiveness, team vs. individual, winning at any cost vs. mindful success metrics clarifies what you stand for and what is expected. Consistently living clearly defined cultural values attracts like-minded talent to the company, which reinforces and strengthens the culture.
- Don’t Underestimate your Competition – Ferrari executives are portrayed not taking Ford seriously as a competitor at Le Mans. At one point, Enzo Ferrari refers to Ford as an ugly company that builds ugly cars in an ugly factory. Ferrari underestimated Ford’s resolve to be a bona fide competitor.
How many times has this happened in your industry? Out of nowhere, a new entrant came into the business and conventional wisdom said “They’ll never succeed; they don’t know the business like we do”. Category killers, market disruptors or simply new approaches, unencumbered by legacy thinking, transform an industry. The moral to the story, assume the threat is real until you can prove otherwise!
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