Sheryl Connelly (B.A. Finance ’89), chief futurist at Ford Motor Company, served as the guest speaker for the final installment of the fall 2021 Roy S. Pung Executive Speaker Series. Joined by Dean Sanjay Gupta, MBA students and her Broad Spartan daughter, finance junior Kate Connelly, she discussed the fundamental components of analyzing global trends and preparing for their potential implications.
At Ford, Connelly and her team lead discussions on long-term strategy and planning by sharing their insights to various functions throughout the company, such as design, product development and corporate strategy. Her team is tasked with focusing on what the uncertain future environment may hold, how different elements may affect the marketplace and their relevance to Ford’s future.
“When you’re talking about strategy — how to expect the unexpected — you have to start from the outside in,” she said. “This is really hard to do. It means that you have to deal with the things that make you uncomfortable. Talk about things that you have no influence or control over.”
During her presentation, she explained some futuring tools to tackle the unknown: understanding generational cohorts, macro and micro trend identification and tracking, and scenario planning to mitigate myopia — a short-term and inward approach to business thinking — and challenge conventional thinking.
To imagine what scenarios may play out, Connelly’s team looks at social, technological, economic, environmental and political trends, referred to as the STEEP categories, to holistically evaluate multiple versions of the future.
“We use those to challenge the status quo, to ask people to start thinking about how consumers will evolve in the future by taking the trends and imagining them going different ways,” she explained.
Among the countless research sources utilized in futuring, Connelly mentioned how she enjoys the opportunity to attend the annual TED conference as part of her role. In fact, along with being an attendee, she has been a featured speaker around the world during TED 2018 and TED Global 2013.
Since 2012, all of Ford’s fascinating trends research has been published publicly. Connelly recognized that a symbiotic relationship has blossomed: the more information they shared, the better their work became. Ford continually utilizes futuring insights to help make strategic, innovative decisions. In spring 2022, the launch of the first all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning will transform America’s beloved best-selling F-series by incorporating purposeful technology while being environmentally friendly.
“Seventy-eight percent of adults surveyed in 14 countries indicate that they are actively changing their behavior to help in the fight against climate change, but when we dug deeper, we found 60% of people worldwide only embrace sustainable initiatives if the inconvenience is small or nonexistent,” she said. “When we think about what that means for electric vehicles, Ford has tried to find a way that resolves that inconvenience or tradeoff. We already have over 100,000 retail orders in the order bank for the all-electric F-150, so it’s exciting to see people’s willingness to adopt.”
Admittedly, Connelly lightheartedly emphasized that futuring doesn’t intend to predict the future, an impossible task to achieve. However, because the future is unknown, she strives to keep Ford one step ahead by preparing for the potential futures that may one day become reality. In order to be ready for unprecedented occurrences, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, these proactive efforts improve the company’s resilience.
During the Q&A session of her presentation, Connelly got candid about her career path and landing her dream job without knowing it. Her first roles with Ford consisted of answering the 1-800 line and selling cars to car dealers, which ultimately set her up for success when she joined the trends and futuring team.
“I love the job that I have and I learned everything along the way, and that’s why I say anybody can be a futurist,” she said. “The thing that prepared me the most, which is surprising, was selling cars to dealers because when you’re going to talk to somebody about something as abstract as the future, you have to be able to read your audience.”
She also discussed relatable topics such as struggles with imposter syndrome, and she let students in on what she looks for in a potential futurist: “I’m looking for people who have curiosity, rich imagination, strong communication skills and, most importantly, humility.”
Connelly’s meaningful work and passion has been recognized by several major platforms. Forbes included her as one of the most influential women in futuring in 2020, Fast Company named her as one of the 2013 Most Creative People in Business and TechWeek has included her in its Top 100 innovators. Additionally, the World Economic Forum invited her to sit on its Global Advisory Committee on transportation in 2015 and 2016.
More information on upcoming events in the 2021–22 Pung Speaker Series, as well as information on past events, is available at the Full-Time MBA program page.