Ford also ready to promote new CEO from within image

General Motors and Ford are following succession plans designed to promote from within, but they are playing out quite differently.

At Ford, Chief Operating Officer Mark Fields has been the heir apparent to CEO Alan Mulally for so long he has become almost as big a household name as the man he is expected to succeed.

While Fields still waits to take the corner office, GM accelerated the transition from CEO Dan Akerson to Mary Barra, who will take charge next month. For many, the idea of Barra rising to the top was not even a point of speculation until Akerson said in September that he thought a woman would eventually run a Detroit automaker.

The speed with which Akerson’s words came true is rooted in both corporate and personal circumstances. Akerson has a pressing family matter and GM shed public ownership on Tuesday, allowing it to conduct business free of government oversight.

“GM had its circumstances and ownership change dramatically,” said Michael Robinet, managing director of IHS Automotive in Southfield. “Ford hasn’t had a logical turning point.”

But Ford has had the protracted courtship of Mulally by Microsoft, which reportedly wants him to return to Seattle to succeed current CEO Steve Ballmer, who is stepping down. Mulally and Ford spokesmen have repeated many times that the 68-year-old executive will stay in Dearborn through 2014, but he declines to say he’s not interested in the Microsoft job.

Noel Tichy, author and professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, called Ford’s method the crown prince process of narrowing down the field.

Speculation about Mulally’s successor ended in 2012 when the board of directors announced Fields’ promotion to the newly created position of COO and said he would run day-to-day operations while Mulally stays through the end of 2014.

“I think Ford has been a lot more transparent,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at Yale School of Management and expert on corporate succession issues. “The fact that they had a much more careful, protégé relationship at Ford, I think, is to be admired.”

Akerson, who turned 65 in October, had been expected to step down within a year or so, and a competition was unleashed between four internal candidates to replace him. Dave Jackson, founder of Jackson Leadership Systems, said both companies should benefit from promoting from within and gain a long-term and loyal leader.