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Alan Mulally’s last great act at Ford

On Monday, both Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal reported that Ford Motor Co.would soon announce chief operating officer Mark Fields as its next CEO, as well as a retirement date for its well regarded current chief executive, Alan Mulally.

The reported succession plan is no ordinary changing of the guard. Mulally has been called Ford's "miracle worker," a "hero" and "one of the best chief executives the industry has seen in a generation." The former Boeing executive is so admired for the repair job he did on Ford's infighting culture — all without resorting to bankruptcy or bailouts — that he was salivated over as the guy to fix Microsoft. He's reinstated dividends for investors, paid UAW workers $8,800 each in profit sharing and returned the company to record profits. Last month, Fortune Magazine even named Mulally the third best leader in the world, following none other than Pope Francis and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Yet despite all those accolades, the single biggest accomplishment Mulally may have as CEO — with the board's help, of course — is to preside over a smooth transition for the company's leadership. (A spokeswoman told Bloomberg the automaker would not discuss its plans externally; an e-mail to Ford's media relations team was not immediately returned.)

This is harder than it sounds, particularly given that it involves a CEO with Mulally's legend-like status. Just because a succession is well planned, after all, doesn't mean it will necessarily turn out well. When the shoes to fill are those of someone who's been called a "hero," investors' expectations are sky-high.

Consider the fate of Bob McDonald, who was also a chief operating officer before following the much respected A.G. Lafley as CEO at P&G in a widely touted handoff. He lasted just four years before the board brought Lafley back. Other successions involving rock-star CEOs, particularly if they are founders who can't quite give up the reins, can also be short-lived, such as Nike's 14-month experiment with bringing in outsider William Perez to replace Phil Knight.

Ford's own succession history has been a bumpy road, too. Back in 1978, the company's high-profile CEO Lee Iacocca was fired by Henry Ford II with the explanation "I just don't like you." In 2001, CEO Jacques Nasser was shown the door, to be replaced by company founder Henry Ford's great-grandson, Bill Ford. Ford, who remains executive chairman, presided over a difficult period for the automaker before bringing in Mulally in 2006.

It appears that a carefully orchestrated handoff is already underway. Fields, a 25-year veteran of the company, was named chief operating officer in 2012, and even then his future ascension was seen as inevitable. So much so, in fact, that Bill Ford had to remind reporters at the time that the company wasn't announcing a transition and too much shouldn't be read into the changes. Meanwhile, Fields already runs the weekly business-review meeting that Mulally instituted, Bloomberg reports, and is in charge of all day-to-day operations of the automaker. Inside Ford, reports the Wall Street Journal, Fields and CFO Bob Shanks have the air of a two-man leadership team.

Those are all good signs for the transition at Ford, if indeed Mulally is about to hand over the wheel. CEOs should not need to be pushed toward retirement, and they shouldn't wait until there is so much uncertainty about their timeline that investors begin to get jittery. They also shouldn't need extra cash on top of their massive pay packages to make time to plan for their successor  — a worrisome recent trend in executive compensation that shows how CEOs find ways to be paid for something that's already part of their job.

Rather, a well conceived succession plan is something that good CEOs start thinking about as early as their first year on the job. As Bill Ford told Bloomberg TV last week, the importance of a smooth handoff is something he and Mulally have discussed since he was hired: "The final act of a great CEO is having a great transition.”

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