Passed over for the top job at Boeing a decade ago, Mulally found career redemption at Ford, where he is widely admired for turning the carmaker around without a government bailout. Now, at age 68, there’s the talk he might run Microsoft.
Many in the investment community and the media have already anointed Mulally the frontrunner to succeed Steve Ballmer as Microsoft chief executive, even though the board is said to still be weighing a short list of candidates.
Where does that leave Ford? The carmaker has had a transition plan in place since last fall, when Mark Fields was promoted to president and COO, making him the clear successor to Mulally, who Ford said would remain as CEO at least through 2014. The two-year transition would have given Fields time to settle in to his much larger responsibilities while allowing Mulally an elegant departure worthy of his folk hero status.
Now, instead, the incessant Microsoft buzz has left Ford in an awkward position. The perception that Mulally is about to jump ship creates uncertainty for employees and investors. Still, the company insists “nothing has changed” about Mulally’s plan to stay through 2014, and Mulally himself says he’s still “excited” to lead Ford. But the rampant speculation can’t be good.
Mulally certainly deserves a victory lap at Ford. The company is in infinitely better shape today than when he arrived in 2006. In fact, there’s not much left for Mulally to do at Ford.
And actually, the longer he sticks around, the more he becomes a distraction, especially if Microsoft’s CEO search drags on. And he risks overplaying his hand; if he waits too long to leave, something could go wrong that will tarnish his golden reputation. Plus, a long goodbye increases the risk that Fields will grow restless and become vulnerable to poaching by another company.