Ford Motor Co. confirmed reports last week of a change at the wheel by announcing Thursday that Mark Fields, the company's chief operating officer, will be its next CEO. Fields will replace current chief executive Alan Mulally, who is credited with engineering a turnaround and has been widely praised for his leadership of the automaker.

Fields, a 25-year veteran of Ford, will take over on July 1, but the hand-off has long been underway. Fields has been running Mulally's weekly business review meeting for more than a year, and is in charge of all of the automaker's day-to-day operations. Over the course of his career, he has led the company's Americas division, European business and its premium vehicle business group, offering him broad experience managing Ford's operations.

That's how it's supposed to work in a succession, even if it hasn't typically. As Chairman Bill Ford, Henry Ford's great grandson, said at an event announcing the changeover, "we've had very few, maybe never, had a planned and smooth transition, all the way back to my great-grandfather." He added that "Mark has been Alan's partner every step of the way."

Mulally, for his part, said he is not sure what he will do next. He reportedly wouldn't rule out becoming CEO at a new company, and he's sure to be a sought-after director for other corporate boards.

One board he won't be on, however, is Ford's. Mulally will be giving up his director's seat. Though at some companies such a well-regarded CEO would stick around as chairman, Ford's board is already led by the family scion, who isn't going anywhere.

This is  a good thing. Yes, Mulally's experience and insights might be a loss to the board, but his presence would likely have caused directors to second-guess Fields or seek Mulally's insight at the first sign of a problem. It will be hard enough for Fields to take over from a legend. Doing so out of his direct shadow should help.

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