DY: In Just a Few Words (#32)
Strive to be better every day.
In 2016, I attended a presentation by a man named Paul O’Neill. Subsequently on another occasion, I had a good one-on-one conversation with him.
The late Paul O’Neill was for some years the CEO of Alcoa, a global giant best known for the aluminum it produces. He also served as Secretary of the Treasury in the second Bush administration. As I learned quickly, Paul O’Neill was a straight talker. With him, what you saw and heard was what you got.
His mantra was simply this: Be better every day. He told me, It’s important to learn from mistakes so we don’t repeat them. This is how you become a high-performing organization (or person).
He told this story: When I first became CEO at Alcoa, I was concerned that we had too many safety incidents and I set improved worker safety as a goal. When they heard that, you could just see people sort of smirking. They had heard this before and thought it was just another platitude.
You have to make sure your people are really your number one priority. Everyone has to own the safety goal and their role in it. Don’t just articulate it. Support it. In our conversation, he talked about what he called the tom-tom network, employees being part of what is known as water-cooler talk and how powerful that network can be.
As the new CEO, he went to plant sites around the country and talked about safety. At an Alcoa facility in Tennessee, he gave his home phone number to employees and instructed them to call directly if there were safety hazards being ignored. Soon, I received a call one evening at home describing just that type of situation at the Tennessee plant. I listened and then I called the plant manager. I woke him up to tell him of the call and to say I expected the situation to be handled immediately. He was to call me and confirm that had been done. This was the moment the tom-tom network started to understand that safety talk was no platitude. Zero injuries was a real goal.
How do you get to improved safety or any other goal in business or in your personal life? You do it by getting better every day, by never accepting good enough as being good enough.
At the end of the day, words don’t mean a lot. It’s actions that matter. We need more CEOs who give their home numbers to employees. Being our best selves has little to do with words and a great deal to do with walking the talk. Paul O’Neill walked the talk.
Another CEO, Paul Tippett of American Motors, once said the following to me. Davis, there isn’t anything public relations people can do for us if we don’t make good cars.
Two CEOs reinforcing a message that doing something is a lot more important than just talking about it.
For me, the lesson is this. In all we do, we should strive to be the person we would want to follow. Paul O’Neill said it perfectly. Get better every day.
DY: In Just a Few Words is a blog that comes out when something needs to be said or every Tuesday - whichever comes first. Davis Young is a communications professional who adds 50+ years of experience and perspective to issues of the day. His emphasis in DY: In Just a Few Words will be humor (a touch of sarcasm here, a pinch of facetiousness there...). Once in a while, he will touch on something a bit more serious - but hopefully not too deep or depressing.
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