Sheryl Connelly may have the coolest job in the world: She predicts the future.
Not in a crystal-ball, $20 to read your future type of way, but in a know-what-the-experts-know, understand-the-consumer, anticipate-coming-trends kind of way.
And, her job helped to shape one of the most remarkable transitions in corporate history: the rescue and remaking of the Ford Motor Company.
First, a little Ford back story
In the early 2000’s, Ford and tire supplier Firestone found themselves in the midst of a recall controversy that nearly sank Ford; customers were turning away from Ford, once the country’s most profitable automaker, in droves. Bill Ford, the company’s chairman and CEO, began a soul-searching journey that led to solutions outside his family’s company, ideas that would shape the future and innovations that would spur Ford into its next era.
Ford leapt ahead light years in its thinking and development, but also returned to its roots, once again leading through Henry Ford’s belief that autos should enhance mobility for everyone, not just the privileged. Ford began to build and market cutting edge technology inside its cars (and under the hoods) that connected with whole new groups of consumers in completely new ways.
Charting the path for Ford’s comeback
The linchpin in this transition is Sheryl Connelly, named one of Fast Company’s most creative people and a sought-after speaker, appearing in the TedX lineup. Her skillful reading of consumer trends, how consumers are driven by and inspired by technology, and how our wants and needs develop over time were the key to the future. By knowing what we will want and need next and the forces shaping that, Sheryl and her group helped Ford to successfully plan and develop so many of the features in cars that we love today.
Finding her own path
But Sheryl wasn’t always a soothsayer. She joined Ford nearly 20 years ago to work in wholesale sales. But eight years into the job she found herself at a crossroads: She didn’t love sales, her degrees in law and finance were not being utilized, and she considered leaving the company. But she didn’t want to go into law, so she brought the problem to Ford leadership and was given an intriguing new option: how about joining the global consumer trends futuring team?
Formed in 2000 to centralize the company’s thinking about development and global markets, Global Futures was a fairly new department; Sheryl hadn’t even known it existed.
So, she gave it a shot.
Using law and business degrees to understand consumers and trends
As a part of the futures team, Sheryl found her skills and education came together in a new way. “My finance degree taught me the fundamentals, my MBA taught me to apply them, and my law degree taught me to be rational and how to use persuasion,” she said. “So did wholesaling cars to dealers,” which also gave her insight into working with the diverse groups of thinkers inside Ford.
“Working with engineers, the message has to be consistent. When talking to designers, they think intuitively, differently. I have to provide a common narrative for these departments to come together.”
Those skills—analyzing, applying information and rationalizing—also help to facilitate her core job: Understanding consumers. So, what does Sheryl know about us?
Age + Values + Experience = birds of a feather
“Your values are formed in your teens and 20’s, and those values stay with you,” Sheryl says. So within each generational group, such as Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials and Generation Z—who are in their teens right now—people tend to share values and experiences; those values and experiences that shape each generation.
“Baby Boomers attitudes were that the car was an iconic symbol of freedom and independence,” Sheryl said. “When you got your license it was the gateway to adulthood.”
Generation Z and Millennials (consumers in their 20’s and 30’s), she says, are more vested in sharing economies; they tend to see us as all in this together.
Understanding trends opens up new marketplaces
Knowing this opens up new markets for Ford and inspired a partnership with ZipCar. Recognizing that college-age Millennials and Gen Z aren’t as interested in owning a car (or or perhaps not as able) as their parents, Ford created a partnership that brought ZipCars to college campuses; students who weren’t old enough to rent a car could join ZipCar for their excursions. That experience, Sheryl says, starts to build the brand in the minds of these consumers. “We hope that when they buy a car they’ll buy a Ford,” she said.
But the experience has to be consistent with what Millennials and Gen Z believe and experience: the cars they spend time in also have to satisfy their other needs, such as digital solutions to things like navigation and music, and safe ways to connect with friends and family while behind the wheel. “Ford recognizes these shifts,” in what people want from their technology, and “invested heavily to make constant connectivity part of the experience” of car ownership.
No longer just cars, but mobility and technology
The investment was so significant that in 2007, Bill Ford became the first auto company president to give the opening keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show. “Ford recognized that the car is more than just transportation,” Sheryl said. “So our partnerships have to be more strategic. We are no longer just an automotive company, we are a mobility company.” To fulfill that role, Ford continues to seek partnerships, including open source development for its products. It’s a lot to keep tabs on, but for Sheryl, that’s OK. Because she loves looking ahead and guiding the company through its journey.