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Leadership Lessons from the Motor industry.

“Focus on your core vision and your key customers.”

This American motor car will seat four people with bucket seats at the front, it will have a floor-mounted gear shift, weigh no more than 2,500 pounds and be no more than 5m long.  It will sell at an affordable price and have multiple options for power, comfort, and luxury.  Oh, and it will be an iconic model that will be in continuous production for over 55 years, and it just happens to be my favourite car.

Perhaps inspired by the iconic E-type Jaguar, this American muscle car has been a firm favourite, and I was lucky enough to have a demonstrator to use for a day to celebrate my birthday a few years ago.  After collecting the car I headed out with my wife and daughter to find a nice long straight and a fairly quiet highway where I was able to pull in to every lay-by, wait for a nice break in the traffic and then accelerate smoothly (and it may be said fairly quickly) up to a fairly fast-paced yet suitably law-abiding cruising speed.  

Very soon though we tired of that, and I then settled down to cruising at very sedate speeds around the local country roads, just enjoying the gentle burble of the 5L V8 engine as we pottered along.   Who needs a radio when you have that beautiful purr to listen to!  (Well, apparently my wife does, but my brother doesn’t!)

It was a lovely drive, that had to come to an end of course.  This ‘merican muscle car is a Ford Mustang, and it has an interesting history in that it has pretty much maintained its manufacturing mandate throughout its entire history.  It was developed as the first a new class of highly styled lines of reasonably priced sporty coupes and convertibles, derived from existing model lines to keep manufacturing and maintenance costs to a minimum.  

“When the reasonably priced, four-seat pony car debuted in New York in 1964, it instantly, dramatically shifted the American car market about its axis.”

~ BBC: Top Gear

Top Gear describes it this way:  “When the reasonably priced, four-seat pony car debuted in New York in 1964, it instantly, dramatically shifted the American car market about its axis. The Ford Mustang racked up 22,000 sales on its first day, effectively birthing the muscle car genre and kicking off a generation of tyre-smoking street wars.  Since then, we’ve seen a further five generations and ten body shapes of Mustang.”  And they had all had the same, unchanging vision.  

From the mid ‘60s, and right through all the ups and downs that the western world has encountered from then until now, it has had the same vision of being a reasonably priced sporty pony car, and the first of its kind.  Through six generations from initial launch to the present day it has pursued its purpose, maintained its mission and valued its vision.  

For this reason, it provides a really helpful metaphor for business, especially in these troubled times.  One of the new favourite business buzzwords in this season seems to be “Pivot”.  This word was coined in “The Lean Startup” this way: “The fundamental activity of a startup is to turn ideas into products, measure how customers respond, and then learn whether to pivot or persevere.”

“The fundamental activity of a startup is to turn ideas into products, measure how customers respond, and then learn whether to pivot or persevere.”

~ The Lean Startup, by Eric Ries

It has become a means of describing a way for any business to recover from a difficult season and to find a way to survive having experienced new conditions that make the original business model unsustainable.  

However, it seems to me that it sometimes appears to describe “gold miners and wheelbarrow salesmen”.  During the California Gold Rush those who made the most money, with a few notable exceptions, were the businesses selling wheelbarrow and pickaxes, and other supplies such as jeans and tents, to the miners.  

When a major new opportunity emerges such as Crocs and the “dotcom” boom of the early 2000s, or going digital in the midst of a socially distanced pandemic, for example, entrepreneurs can try to capitalise on the opportunity either by creating a new product for these new consumers to flock to (mining for gold), or by creating the tools needed to facilitate these new consumer products (selling wheelbarrows).  

The Mustang Makers did neither.  They pretty much stayed with their original vision of a reasonably priced, four-seat pony car throughout their 55 years.  They’ve had six generations of the vehicle; in 1974 and 1994 it won the Motor Trend Car of the Year award, and Mustangs have appeared in the Car and Driver magazine’s “Ten Best” list in 1983, 1987, 1988, 2005, 2006, 2011, and 2016.  

So where does that leave us in 2020 as we emerge from this COVID-19 pandemic?  Well, the first, and most important question to which we need to know the answer is whether we’re going to be a gold digger, a wheelbarrow salesman or a Mustang Maker.  All three business models have merit, and all three are significantly different ways to approach the same crisis.  

“Focus on your core vision and your key customers; the heart and heartbeat of your business.”

Mustang Makers will have focused on their core vision and their key customers; the heart and heartbeat of their business will remain unchanged.  The Mustang has gone through six generations of the pony car, appealing to six generations of pony car buyers in six different seasons. 

It remains to be seen how the Mustang Maker succeeds as it moves into the Electric Vehicle Market with the new Mustang Mach E, however, that’s another topic for a future blog post.

The first, and most important question to which we need to know the answer is whether we’re going to be a gold digger, a wheelbarrow salesman or a Mustang Maker.  

About Roger Fairhead

Roger is a leadership specialist delivering Leadership for Business Achievement through Speaking, Training and Coaching to business leaders and entrepreneurs.

“He is articulate, tracks complex issues with ease and has an incredible gift for raising pearls of wisdom out of the murky depths of people and process.” His passion is to help people to learn effective leadership skills to lead their teams to capitalize on their strengths and passions to realize their dreams.

Leadership for Business also invests into the dreams of families in the world’s underserved communities to offer them small loans that empower them to invest in their future, to provide for their families and give back to their communities.