Leadership can happen

In Ken Burns’ seven part documentary on “The Roosevelts” which focuses on Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor, conservative pundit and author George Will gives FDR high praise for galvanizing American industry toward building planes, jeeps, trucks, ships, tanks, guns, equipment, etc. for World War II. What may be less known, is FDR knew he had to allow the companies to make a profit to gain their full support. It also effectively ended the depression era as it got people back to work.

In this same documentary, Eleanor was asked to travel to the Pacific during the war to help the troops. Admiral Bull Halsey did not want her to come, as he saw it as a waste of time he could use planning. In her first twelve hours, he changed his mind entirely. Halsey noted she worked her fanny off visiting several hospitals, bases and going to several events. He noted the first lady visited every soldier and sailor in the hospital at bed side, asking their name, where they were from and if she could do something for them. As Halsey pointed out, these badly wounded combatants needed a mother to stop by and talk with them..

Dwight Eisenhower was getting all kinds of lessons from people about how to be a leader as president. Here was a man who led the Allied command and had to work with many countries and a variety of egos. Eisenhower told them leadership is not beating on your chest and using fear. Anyone can do that. It is gaining consensus toward a common goal. It is sharing your ideas and listening to theirs. They have to buy into the change or it will not be successful.

Although, LBJ can rightfully be criticized for our failures in Vietnam, along with JFK and Richard Nixon, he used his entire political capital and bully pulpit to get the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act passed. He knew the time was now as well as knowing the Democrats would lose the south if they passed. But, he got them done noting if the presidency is not used for doing big things, what is it for?

Even Nixon with his Watergate scandal, made two significant changes that helped America. He broke the ice on relations with China starting much needed conversations between two world powers. The significance of this move cannot be overstated. And, in reaction to the pollution of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River causing it to catch fire along with Rachel Carson’s book and earlier Congressional testimony on “Silent Spring,” Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency.

Ronald Reagan was not perfect as no president is and the Iran-Contra affair is his albatross, but he made an ad lib during a speech in Berlin in 1987 that led to major change. He said “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” The Berlin wall would come down a few years later. Reagan almost did not say it, but knew instinctively the time was right.

Let me close with a story about a president of a company that I have used before. Paul O’Neill was made the new CEO of Alcoa, a company that was falling short of expectations. At his first press conference, O’Neill did not say the normal buzz word type things. He said he was going to make Alcoa the safest place to work. A financial analyst called his investors and told them to sell Alcoa stock. He later said that was the worst advice he ever gave.

O’Neill knew the only thing the unions and management could agree on was employee safety. Two weeks into his tenure a worker died in a tragic accident on the floor. He called in his direct reports and said “we killed this man.” I want to know in twenty-four hours why he died and how we can prevent future deaths. With that signal, communication up and down the lines improved, empowered employees starting sharing productivity and revenue enhancing ideas and the company took off.

Leadership can happen. Often it takes courage to stick your neck out and do something. All of the above folks also failed to lead on occasion and made some poor decisions. So, even today when we see leadership, we need to let them know we appreciate what they did.

The Power of Habit (updated)

We are creatures of habit. A book I often cite is called “The Power of Habit – Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg. My niece thought I might like this and she was correct. I would encourage you to read it as well, as it articulates how much of what we do each day is based more on habit that is ingrained in each of us or in our organizations.

A friend who taught philosophy at University shared with me that Aristotle felt habits reigned supreme. In his “Nicomachean Ethics,” as referenced in Duhigg’s book, Aristotle said:

“…just as a piece of land has to be prepared beforehand to nourish the seed, so the mind of the pupil has to be prepared in its habits if it is to enjoy and dislike the right things.”

A few examples from “The Power of Habit” might help reveal further Aristotle’s belief. Paul O’Neill is a great example. In short, he came in and transformed Alcoa as its CEO in a very unheard of way. It unnerved so many financial experts, they told people to sell the stock once they heard O’Neill’s first speech. One analyst later said “it was the worst piece of advice I have ever given,” as under O’Neill, Alcoa’s earnings and stock price soared for many years. What did he do that was so unusual and successful? His first focus was to make Alcoa the safest company it could be, as its safety record was atrocious. In other words, he wanted to change Alcoa’s bad safety habits.

He consciously picked this as he explained later, as it was the one thing we could get management and labor to agree on – a safer workplace. So, what happened? Communication between the line workers and management improved as accidents and how to prevent them had to be reported within 24 hours. He showed by example, after a tragic death, that this mattered to him and was not window-dressing. He changed the habits of executives, managers and line workers by insisting that we cannot condone safety problems and must avoid them at all costs. Through the improved communication, other benefits occurred – processes had to be improved to make them safer, the workers were empowered to share ideas on how to improve processes, and management’s goals could be communicated more readily. By emphasizing the importance of safety habits, the company got better. And, so did results.

Another good example about habits is regarding Starbucks. There is a moving story about how a young man had fallen into bad and even criminal habits. His drug problem caused him to lose everything time and time again. Then, someone suggested he try to get a job at Starbucks. Someone gave him a chance and mentored him. But, it was really the Starbucks training that transformed him. The training told him how to serve customers well. It told him how to address situations with an irate customer. It taught him the need to be organized, as if you were not, the customer would be ill-served. This consistent training replaced his bad habits with new habits. He built on his success by first building his self-esteem through better habit. And, it spilled over into his personal life. Now, he is managing a Starbucks and improving his education.

There are numerous examples in the book, but one my niece and I both found interesting is about the fabric freshening product called Febreze. Now, you may not know that Febreze was almost pulled from the market as its sales were almost non-existent. It was a flop. Febreze’s inventor had found a way to chemically remove bad odors from fabrics. When it was first marketed, the elimination of bad odors was the pitch. Yet, that pitch only sold to people whose houses were a total wreck and reeked. The average homeowner did not buy it, at least buy enough of it. Before Proctor and Gamble (P&G) pulled it, they did more research of their target buyers.

Through this research, they discovered a habit in housewives (please forgive the gender reference), who after they made their beds with new linens, they purposefully inhaled the crisp, clean laundered smell. In fact, after they did any cleaning, the desire for a clean-smelling house was habitual. P&G realized people did not crave scentlessness, instead they crave a nice clean smell after they’ve spent 30 minutes cleaning. With this focus, a new marketing effort was launched and within two months sales doubled and then took off, spawning dozens of spin-off products. P&G’s Febreze provided the reward of a clean-smelling house to someone who cleaned it, which was the cue for the reward.

I use cue and reward, as these are two of the tenets of understanding and changing habits, whether they be smoking, nail-biting, eating bad snacks, drinking, etc. In short, Duhigg articulates:

1) Identify the routine (what leads to the habit and why, when and how does it occur?)

2) Experiment with rewards (to change a habit, a new reward has to be substituted, but it has to be fulfilling, so experimentation is needed)

3) Isolate the cue (what is truly the cue; what more than any other thing is causing the habit?)

4) Have a plan (this is what am I going to do about it, this is in my control to change and if I write down my plan, I will have a better chance of success).

One example was an office worker and his craving for a mid-afternoon donut, muffin or unhealthy snack. The routine was the person would leave his desk from boredom, being tired, just to get up, etc. and would go to the vending machine for a snack. The reward was the snack. The cue was harder to find, as various paths led to the reward. It turned out the cue was the time. Invariably, between 3 and 3:30 pm, the person would get the unhealthy snack. So, he noted this in a plan to do something differently. He experimented and felt if he purposefully socialized with others for ten minutes instead of getting a snack, the new reward would satisfy him. So, he planned and executed the plan by getting away from his desk at the same tim each day, forming a new habit. Instead of eating, he would talk with colleagues.

There are other habits noted that have been replaced by new rewards. The key is to find a new reward. If you drink, substituting something that takes the place of the drink will make it a new habit. It could be drinking fruit juices, hot tea, coffee, etc. or it could be taking a walk after dinner, when your old habit of drinking most occurred. The same would hold true with smoking. You have to find a new reward to replace the smoking reward. Otherwise, the old habit will have a better chance of returning.

Let me close how Duhigg did referencing a passage from William James’ book “The Principle of Psychology.” Note William’s brother Henry is an author of some renown.

“All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organized for our weal or woe, and is bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”

Habits can be good or bad. If they are the latter and you want to change, the above steps are worth considering. The book is a good read, with many understandable examples. I highly recommend it. Let me know what you think.

Lessons from Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill – a review

The following post was written seven years ago when GM was having some issues that did not get communicated upward and were left to fester. This is not an uncommon problem, nor is knowing about problems and choosing not to act.

I have written before that organizations take on the personality of its leaders. Earlier this week, CEO Mary Barra of General Motors (GM), reported on the findings of an internal audit of why they did not have an earlier recall when problems arose on some cars. Many heard a lot of blame down the ladder, but we did not hear much about culpability at the top. The key question asked, but not answered, is why did people not share their concerns with management that something was amiss? The unstated answer is it is in the culture of the organization, where people at the top did not want to hear of failings or heads would roll. An analyst who covers the car industry noted there was a modus operandi of “don’t mess with the launch of new line.”

I have written before about two leaders, Captain Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill, who was the CEO who turned around Alcoa and later became Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush. They have some good lessons that GM should emulate  going forward. Sullenberger was the right person at the right time as captain of US Airways Flight 1549 that he safely landed in the Hudson River. He not only studied accidents for airlines, he was on task forces to go to crash sites and help ascertain why the planes went down. So, he knew from his research and experience, what he needed to do to safely land in the Hudson.

He also knew what GM failed to remember. He was the leader of the crew, but he understood all to well that each member of the team has a role in the safety of the flight, including the flight tower personnel. His research showed that many accidents occurred because navigators and co-pilots did not feel comfortable offering input to the pilot or tower. A couple of examples might help. A plane crashed in Japan, because the co-pilot had to acquiesce to the pilot due to seniority. In this case, the co-pilot was on record as being correct that the plane was off course, but the pilot’s judgment could not be overturned. In another, the Brazilian flight crew of a doomed flight did not have confidence to disagree with an American flight tower and the plane crashed.

Sullenberger was aware of other examples that had been noted and improved over time. But, what he did every time he had a new flight crew (even one new member), was get them all together to get to know them and encourage them to speak up if they saw something amiss. Anything, even if small. He noted in his book, what gave him great comfort during these few seconds on Flight 1549, was he could hear everyone doing their job. He got quick advice from the tower, his co-pilot and navigator. He shared his thoughts quickly and made sure everyone knew what was going to transpire. When he concluded that getting nearby Teterboro Airport was not possible, he offered up and concluded, “it looks like we will be in the Hudson” which allowed rescue crews to be alerted.

O’Neill joined Alcoa which was struggling. And, his first public comments were “we are going to make Alcoa the safest company possible.” This was an odd mission to start out with and many analysts were not impressed. One analyst told his investors to sell Alcoa stock, which he later added, was the worst advice he had ever given. O’Neill knew that the only thing he could get management and union leaders to agree on was safety. So, that is where he started. He also knew that for safety to be important, managers had to talk to floor personnel to understand better the problems, so that a plan to fix them could be developed. So, communication got better up and down the line. The empowered employees starting sharing ideas on how to improve not only safety, but process as well. The company performance and stock price took off.

Both Sullenberger and O’Neill knew that they were part of a team. They also knew the best ideas can come from anywhere, but especially from those closest to the action. So, it is not only vital, but imperative, that management create a culture where ideas can be shared. Otherwise, you would be flying in the dark. It should be noted at the same time GM was having these troubles, they missed a huge market opportunity. Why? Because they were not listening.

GM piloted the first electric car called the EV-1 in California in the early 2000’s. They did not sell them or market them, but a cult-like following was growing as people who wanted to make a difference started leasing them by the thousands. Eventually, the EV-1 was killed as the result of an alleged collusive effort chronicled in the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” which can be accessed by the link below. The drivers wanted to buy the cars, but GM collected them and shredded them. They wanted no evidence. The Board of Directors of GM asked why the EV-1 pilot was being shelved at the same time they were building Hummers, and management said this is the direction America car buyers want. Hummers are no longer made as they were gas guzzlers.

Here in 2014, GM could have been the predominant player in the electric car market, which will grow as more power stations and better batteries become available. Yet, they chose a short-lived strategy, made other bad decisions and had to be bailed out and only now are seeing the failure of not having an open culture to communication. The lesson that was not said by Barra is we did not have an environment where people could offer input and we would listen to them. She needs to talk to Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill and set a more open path for the future. It is not ironic, that both are known for safety. And, communication.

Echoes of past blogposts

If you have been blogging for a few years, you likely witness some of your older blogposts resurfacing with more interest. In my case, it is not uncommon for some older posts to be more widely read than at the time they were written.

Now, I am not referring to those blogposts that have consistently drawn attention. The ones that pop-up in your most-viewed list after being long absent are to what I am referring. Here are a few late-blossomers that are getting more attention:

“Don’t laugh at me” written in September, 2013 – This one resurfacing is less a surprise as I think people are alarmed by the divisiveness in America and western democracies. The Peter, Paul and Mary songs resonates saying quietly and pleafully “we are all the same.” It’s message is place yourself in the shoes of the person who is being ridiculed. At some point, each of us has been ostracized. Here is a link.

https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2013/09/30/dont-laugh-at-me/

“Who is Paul O’Neill and why should his opinions matter?” written in March, 2013 – This one is more of a surprise, given the relative anonymity of Paul O’Neill. Yet, I think people are craving leadership with the dearth of such in the two largest English speaking democracies. O’Neill is a quiet, studious and effective leader who deserves notoriety for his ability to observe what is wrong and how to arrive at solutions. Plus, it shows great leaders facilitate communications up and down organizations as the best ideas often come from those closest to the action. Here is a link.

https://musingsofanoldfart.wordpress.com/2013/03/20/who-is-paul-oneill-and-why-should-his-opinions-matter/

If you do not remember these posts or were not following my blog back in 2013, please check them out. I am delighted they are getting a little more interest given their subject matter. Also, please share a link to similar posts of yours. I would love to revisit them or read them for the first time.