Friday, July 10, 2009

Succession: Accept that Nightcap Invitation

The passing of Robert McNamara, which I reflect on in my previous post, offers the opportunity to share this story of how he was offered the presidency of Ford Motor Co. This is a tale McNamara told in his book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam (Vintage Books, 1996).

"In the summer of 1960," McNamara writes, "Ernest Breech, second in command under Henry Ford II [pictured], was getting ready to retire from Ford. In July, Henry, John Bugas [a rival senior executive with an eye on being named president] and I went to Cologne, West Germany, to visit our German company, which was headquartered there.

"We returned to our hotel about 2 a.m. after one of Henry's nights on the town. The elevator stopped at the floor where John and I had rooms, and we started to get off. Henry, whose suite was one floor above, said, 'Bob, come on up for a nightcap.'

" 'I don't want a nightcap,' I said. 'I'm going to bed.'

" 'Henry, I'll join you,' said John.

" 'I didn't ask you,' Henry told him. 'I invited Bob.'

"I went on up, and it was then that Henry asked me to become president of the company.

"I told him I would think about it, talk to Marg [his wife], and give him an answer within a week. A week later I accepted. I was formally elected by the board in late October."

A fun moral of the story: A request to join in on a nightcap can be more than just an invitation for a late-night toddie.