Getting started as an expert at Ford Motor Company

Decades ago, while employed at Ford Motor Company, I was asked to attend a high level executive briefing at the company’s headquarters. For several months I had been involved in a strategic project which was growing in importance. We were moving all supplier facing technology to the web. Consequently, corporate leadership wanted to discuss the project and its implications.

At that time in my career, executive level visibility was unusual. I was young, new to the company, and inexperienced. Nevertheless, I was intimately involved in this project and my divisional director, Teri Takai, wanted me to attend the meeting to ensure all possible questions could be answered.

My project was allocated 5 minutes in a busy meeting agenda and Teri asked me to present the project. “But be prepared to be cut short,” she warned, “or be skipped altogether if the meeting takes an unexpected turn.”

In spite of my junior status, I felt prepared. I was confident because I knew the facts of the project. I knew how the project would be delivered. I knew the budgets, the team, the technology, the schedule, and the risks. I knew ten different ROI justifications. I knew what issues had been resolved and what barriers still lay ahead. I was confident and I thought I could answer any question. But, I quickly learned otherwise.

At the beginning of my presentation the executives were patient. When they realized my focus was too narrow, however, they started asking questions. Questions that I could not answer. “How long will it take to replicate the technology and processes in Japan?” they asked. “This project will impact all our key suppliers, which ones are most likely to resist?” “We have a patent infringement battle developing in Germany, how will this project complicate that case?” And on, and on.

The five minute presentation stretched past 30 minutes. Fortunately, Teri rescued me. She helped answer many of the questions, calmed executive concerns, gracefully deflected irrelevant issues. She focused the executives on the matters most urgent, avoided the rat holes, and left the people in the room excited and optimistic.

When the meeting concluded, it was clear to me that Teri was the expert, not me. I was blindsided, and flustered. Yet, how could that be? I knew more about this project than anyone else in the company, including Teri, yet she came across as credible, prepared, and trustworthy. What was I missing? How had I failed?

After that experience, and others like it, I began studying the subject and taking notes on expert performances. What do great experts do? Why do people heed some experts but not others? What can I learn from the experts around me? After decades of observation and hundreds of interviews I have assembled the essentials of what I wish all experts knew and did. I wish I’d known these things sooner. I wish someone had shared more insights with me years ago. It might have set me in a better direction, answered some of my questions, and spared my colleagues hundreds of hours of frustration. On this site I share my observations and summaries of the art of being expert.

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