What A Monomaniacal Nightmare Of A CEO Got Right About Change

My favourite story about organisational change in Paul O’Neill, the former CEO of Alcoa.

When he took over, Alcoa – the aluminium production giant – was unremarkable.

It was profitable, but large, sluggish and vulnerable.

It was pretty safe to work at. Given they dealt with molten metal all day, the fact they were safer than some offices was impressive.

By all accounts, it was doing okay but not great.

(A disaster in today’s economy.)

When Paul O’Neill tool over as CEO, he didn’t do the usual thing of promising a new wave of profits. He said Alcoa’s new number one priority was safety. He would dedicate himself to making Alcoa the safest place to work in the world.

Competitiveness, innovation, even profitability were all a distant second.

This is a senior leader and shareholder’s nightmare. Of course, no one is anti-safety… but without profits, there’s no organisation to be safe at.

Surely these things need to be balanced?

But here’s the trick: by making safety the number one priority, everything improved.

Managers knew they would only get promoted if they improved safety – not if they delivered on time and under budget – so they listened to their employees more. After all, no one knew the risks and hazards better than them.

Safety incidents had to be reported to O’Neill within 24 hours of occurring… so this multinational giant had to streamline communications between the bottom and the top.

Employees felt like the organisation valued them.

These, and a thousand other improvements, led to Alcoa surging in marketshare.

I could go on because there are many, many lessons here.

But there’s one I want to tease out at the moment:

His board of directors thought he was crazy. Or that he wasn’t serious. This wasn’t the first time they had some new CEO declare this and mandate that. All they had to do was wait a few weeks for business to get back to normal.

O’Neill never let it go back to normal.

He never relented.

He delivered his message consistently and he lived it.

When he first started talking about this, no one knew whether he was serious or not.

It wasn’t until he kept saying it, even when it would have been easier for him to drop it, that people started to fall in line.

Reluctantly, at first. After all, he could still backpedal at any moment.

But when he didn’t – and they knew this was their new reality – they saw the writing on the wall. The only way to succeed in the organisation was to follow this new vision.

That’s how you transform an organisation: through consistency and unwavering dedication.

Many people say change is hard, even if you’re in charge. It’s only hard if you quit. Stay the course and everyone will follow your lead.

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