Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Leaders' actions speak far louder than their words

Here's another story about CEO as role model and the mistakes that can create. It is by Paul Anderson, former CEO of BHP Billiton:

After I spent about a year at BHP Billiton, ...profitability was up, and our efficiency was up; we were getting great productivity. You could look at almost any measure, and it was positive. Except safety. Safety had actually gone down a little bit.

I was very vexed by this, and I kept asking the head of the safety group, "What is it? Why isn't the organization embracing a safety culture, and why can't we seem to improve our safety performance?"

After beating around the bush for a while, he finally blurted it out. He said, "Well, you're the problem."

I said, "I'm the problem? I'm a real proponent of safety; we've got it right in our charter; I can't imagine a higher objective for the company; I can't imagine anything going before it."

He said, "Well, you're a lousy role model - just look at what you're doing."

I replied, "Lousy role model - what do you mean?"

He said, "You know, people notice that when you come to work you jaywalk across the street; you don't go to the corner. People notice that when you're out visiting a plant, if you're wearing dark safety glasses and you come inside, you take off the dark glasses even if you don't have a pair of clear safety glasses to replace them with and you're still in an area where you need them. They notice that when you go up and down steps you don't hold onto the handrail, which is the standard practice we have here. They notice that you don't park your car backward in a parking space which, again, is the safety standard that we have. You're just basically a lousy role model."

Of course, that took me a little aback. But he went on and said, "when you go to visit a manager, the first thing you ask is, 'How are you doing against budget?' You start asking financial questions; you don't start with, 'How is your safety program? What results have you had over the last year? What are your two or three safety issues that you have here?' So, people assume you're not particularly interested in safety. And in fact, they're focusing on everything but safety because you haven't really highlighted it."

That really struck me. I had never been in a situation where I was so clearly scrutinized as a role model and where safety was so important, because this was primarily a mining operation and steel mills, and very much an industrial setting. I realized that not only was I being scrutinized on the job, but also I was being scrutinized off it, too. One of the things that the head of the safety group said was, "People know you don't like to wear a helmet when you ride a motorcycle." And I thought, "Well, what's that got to do with anything?" But if you don't display these values in your personal life, then you obviously don't really embrace the values. It really drove home the point. Somebody once said, "Good leadership is doing the right thing, even when no one's looking." I realized that, actually, somebody is looking....

The key point I got out of that experience was that you are a role model 100 percent of the time. When you're the CEO of a company, you can't separate your personal life from your professional life. People learn what you do in your personal life; they follow what's going on; they watch you in situations where you might even thing you're not being watched. And if you don't walk the talk, they pick that up in a heartbeat. They sense very quickly whether your words and your actions are tied together, and if you don't match your words with your actions, the organization basically discards your words.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Press. Excerpted from Lessons Learned: Straight Talk from the World’s Top Business Leaders--Communicating Clearly. Copyright (c) 2009 Fifty Lessons Limited; All Rights Reserved.

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