Ford’s Jim Farley Plies A New Skill: Podcasting

The CEO's new project shows how leaders can benefit by mastering online interviews, revealing more of themselves and bolstering communications.

Ford CEO Jim Farley is a marketer by background, and he’s in the midst of leading an electric-vehicle revolution in the auto industry that must be sold to constituencies as vast and varied as the American public and the company’s own dealers and employees. So he’s looking for every effective venue he can use.

That’s one reason Farley has taken to becoming a podcaster, one of the most prominent of the growing number of business chiefs who have started interviewing people for half-hour online broadcasts that market their company and reinforce their messages while also offering windows into their own leadership styles and personalities.

Farley’s experience offers lessons for any CEO—whether head of a consumer-facing company or B2B, whether large or mid-market or entrepreneurial—who might be inclined to do the same. Podcasts can be an effective way for today’s business chiefs to add to their marketing arsenals in an era when communicating with customers often comes down to garnering a snippet of their time and attention online in some form.

In Farley’s case, he just wrapped up his first season as a podcaster with Spotify for seven episodes of a series about people and cars called “Drive with Jim Farley.” He capped the series with an episode with Tom Brady, arguably the GOAT of professional football, while other prominent guests were talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel, actor Dax Shepard and Yochen Zeitz, CEO of Harley-Davidson, of which Farley is a board member.

But Farley’s guests also included diverse lesser lights: a woman who owns and operates a female-focused auto-repair clinic in Philadelphia; a car-modification guru who’s a YouTube sensation, and Charles Gordon-Lennox, the Duke of Richmond, proprietor of the fabled Goodwood Festival of Speed in the United Kingdom.

Farley told Chief Executive that he experimented with this flourishing communication form “for a chance to learn from others — but off the record, as Jim Farley, not as Ford’s CEO.” The lifelong auto enthusiast known in his youth as “Jimmy Car-Car” also wanted to “get out of my comfort zone and have fun. And it was just fun to talk with [guests] about real basic things about all of us regardless of who we are: our first drive, our first car, the first time you do something wrong. It breaks down the barriers.”

At the same time, breaking down the barriers in the course of podcast conversations recorded on Saturday afternoons has meant Farley revealing more of himself. And as Ford’s CEO, he’s had to check himself. “We have the most hourly employees in the United States” of any car company, he said. “We make every one of our trucks in the U.S. I can never forget what my role is and although I want to be myself on Saturday doing a podcast, I really don’t have that freedom.”

Here are some things Farley has learned from his young career as a podcaster:

• Leave your zone. Farley rose through Toyota and then Ford as a sales and marketing guru, along the way assuming positions such as head of sales for Toyota and chief of the Lincoln brand, and of global marketing, for Ford. So he brought outside-oriented sensibilities to the top job at Ford that he continues to use to market the company at the same time he’s transforming it.

“I felt like the transition of the company and our industry means I’m going to have to get out of Dearborn,” Michigan, where Ford is headquartered, Farley said. “It took a lot of effort, but I looked forward to Saturday more and more, and it expanded my horizons.”

• Enhance communications. Farley took a flyer on the podcast partly to experiment with another form of corporate communication. “When you’re leading a transformation like at Ford, where it’s a traditional industrial company competing against a lot of new companies that don’t have any legacy issues, communication is really important,” he told Chief Executive. “You need to be really close to your stakeholders. You need to be very active. You can’t just do a great job at work and it all comes out and everything is fine.

“Those days are gone. You need to be a communicator, and the venues where you communicate are changing. Online is super important now. I’m talking with a lot of customers. I want people to buy our Lightning, and you can’t be that cigar-chomping CEO at a car company any more. Those days are gone. It’s all about communications.”

• Flow into the format. Farley learned that to become an effective podcaster, he “had to loosen up, and also not to take such a back seat during interviews,” he said. “It’s not transactional information flow. It’s a conversation. I never had a conversation on mass media like this. It was a difficult transition for me to be an active listener and interjecter and be an active part of the conversation instead of it being transactional like with media” interviews.

He advised other would-be podcasters, “Try to connect with people and try to find your voice outside of your traditional swim lane.”

• Brand yourself. Farley is known for several things, and one is self-confidence. On his final podcast episode with Brady, he didn’t hold back for reasons he feels it.

“The joy I have is in developing a product people absolutely love after they had no idea they would even need it,” he said. “For example, the [Lexus] RX 300 SUV, which mostly was aimed at women, absolutely changed the industry. I was the product panner for the [Toyota] RAV4, and for a four-door small pickup. They said, ‘Jim, that will never work,’ and I said, ‘It will work.’ They said, ‘Don’t mention it again,’ and I said, “No, you don’t understand. If you just let me build the product, it’ll be successful.’ When guys are wrong, it’s the biggest turn-on for me, still after all these years.”

And Farley is hoping his string of I-told-you-sos can extend to the success of the F-150 Lightning. It represents a fundamental break with the young history of EVs because Ford has made an all-electric version of its most iconic gas-powered nameplate, and Americas best-selling vehicle, the F-150 pickup truck, instead of simply creating another nameplate for a battery-powered new vehicle.

“A lot of people said the F-150 Lightning won’t work, and I said, ‘You’re wrong — you’re totally wrong,” Farley said. Initial consumer reception for the F-150 Lightning, indeed, is very strong.

Add to your skill set. Farley said he’s gotten help in being a better podcaster from advisors ranging from his wife, who’s in the entertainment business, to guests such as Kimmel and Shepard, to Spotify’s producers.

“I knew how to prepare but not how to be myself and how to step out of the CEO’s role for Saturday” recording sessions, he said. “I’m still a professional doing these interviews, but it’s like a different self. And I had to make a lot of corrections quickly because I’d never done anything like this.” 

• Learn from your guests. Farley’s roster of podcast guests ranged broadly, he said, because “connecting with all different people just broadens your horizon. I got more out of doing these podcasts than [the benefits of] any exposure we would get from them.”

He learned about YouTube influencing, for example, from guest Emelia Hartford, who found her calling in car-modification communities in Indiana and California. And from Patrice Banks, the owner of Girls Auto Clinic in Philadelphia, Farley learned more “about the prejudice that people can feel in the service departments at our dealerships. My horizons expanded after this.”

And from discussing how Brady still obsesses by practicing throwing the football even at this career pinnacle, Farley said, he took away that “it’s OK to be imbalanced about your passion, if it doesn’t hurt anyone else. What’s the harm in trying to throw a football perfectly? It reminded me that of all the change in our industry, you have to get the product right. As an old product planner, that’s really something I have to get right. You can never stop throwing the football just right.”

• Toe the line. For Farley, showing vulnerability was another motivation for doing the podcast series. “When you do something like this you have to put yourself out there,” he said. “You can’t be the CEO of Ford; you have to be Jim Farley as a person. That vulnerability is really important. It’s something I’m learning to do. I wasn’t taught. It’s how people relate to each other.”

Yet, he said, “There’s an invisible line” of balance in this regard, “and you have to be really thoughtful about that invisible line.”