Drive to Excel

Ford's David Murphy heads a massive department, and has shifted it into overdrive.

Thursday, November 1, 2001
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For many people, heading the HR department of a 4,000-employee company would be a considerable challenge. But the challenge presented to David L. Murphy when he was named vice president of human resources at Ford Motor Co. two years ago was several orders of magnitude greater.

Murphy was placed at the head of an HR department that itself has more than 4,000 staff members worldwide, and which services more than 300,000 employees.

The size of the human resource department at Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford "indicates how important HR is," says Murphy, who has been named to the 2001 HR Honor Roll. "The people side of the business is one we take extremely seriously."

A native of Northern Ireland, Murphy came to the United States in 1988 after doing voluntary service work in Africa, and then working for Ford in Europe. He was transferred to Ford's Australian operations in 1990 and became vice president of the company's entire HR function in January 1999, at the same time that Jacques Nasser became its president and CEO. Immediately, Murphy became one of the key players tasked with driving Nasser's vision through the company, a vision Murphy knew would mean a complete transformation of the HR division.

Murphy "has been a close adviser to Nasser and the top team," says Noel Tichy, a professor at the University of Michigan with three decades of experience in human resource management. "He is the one willing to push unpopular changes, such as a shift toward performance management at Ford, and hard-nosed action learning for leadership development."

"Rarely have I found an HR leader with so much business acumen," adds Tichy, who has worked with and advised Murphy on many of the programs he's set up since taking the job. "He is part of the senior team and is a business person first who then helps the senior team drive the most important asset -- people -- to better performance."

Chief among those changes was the creation of a service delivery organization, through which Murphy and his team have shifted the department from a transactional organization into one that performs more like a business consultant or partner.

Far-flung HR responsibilities and activities were centralized into an HR customer operations function, staffed with specialists in recruiting, training, leadership development, health-care management and other benefits, and accessible on the Web.

The system is now up and running, such that most Ford employees can perform nearly all HR activities by computer at any time.

"It's working extremely well," Murphy reports. "It basically provides our employees a way to go to the source, accessible 24 hours a day, and get consistent information. It allows them to take control of their relationship. Instead of having to go find somebody, they're able to do it themselves, any time of the day or night."

Great Team

Murphy also writes a monthly e-column called "David Online," reflecting on HR's role in corporate initiatives and objectives and recognizing outstanding performance by his HR people around the world.

"I have a great team working for me in various parts of the world," he says.

As the department was changing, the company was changing as well, acquiring two well-known companies, Volvo and Land Rover. Murphy was an integral part of the due diligence that led up to both deals, and was subsequently responsible for assimilating both companies' HR policies and programs into Ford's.

"We fortunately had previous experience with this sort of integration during the Jaguar acquisition," he says. "The real issue is the culture fit. But we selected the right people from both sides to create a management team sensitive to the whole issue of culture."

Murphy has also spearheaded other initiatives:

* The Leadership Development Center expanded its reach from senior-level managers to all levels of management. Now, participants in the LDC's four core management programs are selected from a pool of 18,000 managers around the world for the one-week program of classroom activity.

* Born at high-level LDC meetings, Ford's new recruiting initiative includes an interactive Web site where candidates learn about opportunities at Ford, as they are assessed by the company. The top candidates are invited to a three-day "leadership conference" at which they meet with senior staff, test drive vehicles, discuss their areas of interest and expertise and are interviewed for specific positions.

"We now have a much more 'Webified' recruiting process; it's much more resource-efficient," Murphy says. "It's made a big difference both for the candidates and for the company."

* A "Six-Sigma" program, a scientific process designed to uncover the root cause of customer concerns and drive out defects, resulted in the placement of more than 1,800 full-time, trained problem-solvers, dubbed Black Belts, leading customer-satisfaction team projects. The company estimates that these projects will save Ford more than $200 million in the next two years.

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* A team of labor-affairs experts was established to lead Ford through its 1999 United Auto Workers negotiations, which both union and management experts agree were very successful.

* A Performance Consulting Center of Excellence, staffed by experts recruited from the external consulting field, are now working closely with the HR business operations staff in each of Ford's operations. The goal of each center is to transform HR associates into "strategic business consultants to their customers."

More Diversity

"David does not need to be in the limelight," Tichy says. "He wants the team to succeed. To accomplish this, David has the guts to take on the resistant forces in the company, to push boundaries."

One of the company's newest programs is its Family Service and Learning Centers, created out of union negotiations. Ford plans to open 31 such centers in the United States within the next three years, and hopes all of them will provide important services such as child care and educational resources.

"We opened our first one recently," Murphy says. "I don't think we really know yet how far we can take this concept. We're asking ourselves: 'How do we really optimize the centers?' We're learning as we go."

Murphy has made a number of strides toward creating a more diverse workforce, including building relationships with minority universities and women-advocacy organizations such as Catalyst. He has overseen the expansion of employee resource groups that serve as peer support for women and minorities. In 2000, when Ford announced its intention to give health-care benefits to partners of gay and lesbian employees, Murphy was the only vice president of the three companies to act as spokesperson for his company.

"What we've learned is that the quality of opportunity is key; it's vital to make sure that we bring out talent from the widest range of people possible," he says, adding that the company still has a way to go to change some attitudes. "Is there some resistance from some sectors? Yes, but it's changing."

His work on diversity and work/life has been recognized by such organizations as It has also resulted in Ford's recognition as a great place to work by such publications as Fortune, Working Mother and others.

"We really do believe the cliche that people are the heart and soul of the company," Murphy says.

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