Ford chief futurist talks global impacts, motivating employees at Iowa business conference

Hundreds of business leaders gathered in Dubuque on Wednesday heard a top business analyst and strategist discuss planning for the unexpected and creating a successful workplace.

Sheryl Connelly, chief futurist for Ford Motor Co., spoke during the Iowa Association of Business and Industry’s annual Taking Care of Business Conference. More than 600 business leaders from across the state registered for the three-day conference, which wraps up today.

Connelly said she spoke not as a representative of Ford Motor Co. but as someone who has analyzed global trends and their potential impacts on business for decades. However, she told attendees that trying to plan for an uncertain future is impossible.

“You can’t predict the future,” she said. “When you let go of the notion that you can predict the future, you open yourself up to other possibilities for your organization because you’re willing to try.”

Connelly said most businesses have a multi-year plan for success, and those plans are often centered around a business geographical area or industry. However, she encouraged business leaders to think bigger about their plans for strategy.

She pointed to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including supply-chain issues, as an example. She said she started to wonder when news first broke of COVID-19 cases in China about how that would affect production of raw materials, many of which come from that country.

“You can’t just look at what’s happening in your marketplace, what’s happening in your country,” she said. “You have to look worldwide and think about how that affects your business. … If you’re looking at those signals, you will be better prepared than other organizations. That’s what being a futurist is all about.”

She added that hiring a team from a variety of backgrounds and fields can bring in new ideas for a business strategy with a wider scope.

“More and more, the best ideas are coming out of these crossed, multidisciplinary teams,” she said.

Connelly also spoke about how to keep employees and business owners satisfied and motivated in the workplace, noting that a 2020 survey conducted in 10 countries found 69% of people feel overwhelmed.

She stressed the benefits of getting enough sleep, as well as the positive effects of meditation. She said some businesses have begun implementing guided meditation sessions in the workplace to increase productivity.

Connelly also mentioned that businesses are being asked more now than ever before to speak on political and societal issues.

“What is becoming increasingly important are the values of a product and the people behind it,” she said.

While businesses might want to stay away from speaking on such issues, Connelly said, speaking up creates stronger trust with both customers and employees.

“You don’t have a choice anymore,” she said. “You will alienate some people, but you will build a stronger bond with your employees.”

Tom Yeoman, owner of Monticello, Iowa-based tool manufacturer Yeoman & Co., said he found Connelly’s presentation interesting but that he disagreed with her thoughts on businesses speaking out on larger issues.

“I was surprised she said businesses ought to vocalize their political opinion because, as a business owner, I disagree with that,” he said.

Yeoman said his business has felt the effects of global supply-chain challenges that Connelly noted, as well as labor issues affecting all different types of industries.

Wendy Mihm-Herold, Northeast Iowa Community College vice president of business and community solutions, said Connelly’s comments about motivation matched the message she spreads in her job every day.

“I think what motivates employees is making sure we show our passion and making sure we know our values,” she said. “That’s how we engage and retain employees.”