“I am willing to negotiate on everything with you but there is one thing I will never negotiate on, Safety!” This was Alcoa’s new CEO Paul O’Neil addressing an anxious smelting plant audience in Tennessee. Alcoa’s troubles did not end at diminishing revenues and declining share prices. Feuds between senior management and trade unions had worsened. O’Neill’s safety mantra was not making much sense. The employees were skeptical about his leadership. A large number of executives were feeling betrayed after they were sidelined for the top position. This outsider was now setting a new direction for America’s largest aluminum manufacturer during a crisis.
It was only a few months after his first appearance at the shareholder meeting. The investors had serious reservations about O’Neil’s appointment as the CEO. They were eagerly waiting for his introductory address in hopes of revolutionary recovery plans. O’Neill broke off by pointing out the safety that exits within the room. He continued to enlighten his audience with an iteration of the exit plan in case of a fire emergency. When he finally addressed the elephant in the room, it was about subpar safety conditions and high injury rates among Alcoa employees.
His goal was to make Alcoa a zero injury workspace. As he wrapped up his address, an investor rushed to advise his shareholders to sell Alcoa’s stock. “They have put a hippy in charge!” The reactions of others were not much different. The accidents in Alcoa were at a high but not far-fetched for a place that manufactured aluminum. The company’s existence was at stake and the newly appointed CEO was only focusing on safety. This did not resonate well with Wall Street.
The Knight in shining armor for Alcoa
After O’Neill’s appointment, Alcoa’s profits went record high in a year. His tenure resulted in a five times increase in stock price while Alcoa also became one of the safest places to work in the world.
O’Neill had identified safety as the ‘Keystone Habit’ for improvement. It took some time for Alcoa’s executives to realise that the new CEO was actually serious about workplace safety. Up to that point, they were hoping that he would forget this escapade and will get along with the routine business of running the company by the book. To cope with O’Neil’s preferences, the organization had to draw new operating rules.
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Any safety incident had to be reported to him within 24 hours. Most operating procedures and working environment had to be evaluated and improved to provide a safer environment. With the improved communication channels, delimited hierarchies, and the welcoming of improvement suggestions from staff at all levels, Alcoa’s culture transformed. The productivity boomed and the place resumed its position as the market leader. All this, while working towards safety.
The government’s leadership has identified corruption as the Keystone Habit. His mostly uncompromised stance on corruption is not a choice. Facilitating the textile sector, empowering the construction industry, prioritizing the government’s spending on its people, building houses and new cities would not have any meaning if the cultural acceptance of corruption is not addressed.
Alcoa’s board did not have a lot of choices when they put O’Neill in charge. They stood by him as The Wall Street and pretty much everyone else thwarted his vision. Among the internal troubles and belligerent competitors, the board’s consistent confidence in his leadership saved Alcoa from the inevitable.
To NRO or not to NRO is a watershed moment. If former, another attempt at significantly denting the culture of corruption would have to wait for decades. The blow would be weaker. The surrounding environment will be harsher. The corrupts would be even stronger. For now, the cacophonic bleats about inflation and incompetence have faded. Sania Nishtar’s work, though in-progress, has already ensured the nation’s reiterated confidence. Not to NRO is the only way.
Waqas Khawaja is a political blogger, a technology professional with over 15 years of experience, an entrepreneur, and a part-time Ph.D. scholar based in Ireland. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.