One of the more interesting stories to me in the business world is the story about a man named Paul O’Neill. This was a man who came into the role of CEO at a company called Alcoa (Aluminum Company of America.)
What interests me most about this is not the position O’Neill held or the fact that I remember the Alcoa commercials from when I was a kid. No, what I appreciate most about this story is O’Neill’s approach when he first started his role.
The story that I was told is in his very first meeting, O’Neill talked about worker’s safety at their plants. There were other problems and financial issues to discuss, but instead, O’Neill made the decision to focus on workers’ safety. This was not an expected approach.
The details of this story even reached a factory worker who witnessed an unfortunate accident. A man died on the job.
O’Neill called to find out what happened and what could be done to avoid an accident like this again. O’Neill gave the worker his phone number and the worker was told to call him at any time. He was told to call if he saw something wrong or dangerous or had any ideas on how to improve plant safety.
Keep in mind, this is a top level executive reaching out to listen to a low-level or perhaps an entry level employee.
The idea of safety is not what turned the company around. Instead, O’Neill’s intention to place value on the worker and acknowledge all workers as people was enough to create a different sense of appreciation.
I was midway through my first corporate pilot when I saw proof of this. The emails I received were more than I expected. The outpouring of opinions and appreciation for the attention to mental health and wellness was received exceptionally well.
The beginning of each session is always basic information. We discuss guidelines and a simple introduction to create a safe level of interaction. We briefly discuss the prior week’s discussion and open up to feedback or questions.
The sessions were both interesting and a welcomed challenge to me because at my best, I am comfortable performing in front of a crowd. This way, I can interact with the people in the room. However, we live in the pandemic era. So, therefore, the room itself was empty and the audience was virtual.
This was a challenge to say the least. However, as the program moved, we found that colleague interest began to increase.
We noted that more people felt comfortable this way and more people began to share their thoughts and ideas on the chat feature during the webinar. Confidentiality was less of a challenge and while ideas such as breakout sessions and small groups were difficult to pull off, the intention of each session was well-received.
People felt safe. . .
Then again, there were no high-pressure explosions or accidents that would happen at an aluminum plant in this setting. There is little regard for an actuary or broker to burn themselves or receive a serious, life threatening injury while working at their cubicle. However, our focus on safety was less about physical dangers and more about psychological safety.
We discussed, encouraged and empowered each session to be an open dialogue (with no judgment allowed) as well as a place where people can understand the dilemmas of our thinking errors, workplace insecurities, inaccurate assumptions and judgments, and how to safely improve interpersonal communication and promote transformation growth.
We opened our sessions with a saying that was intended to create the urgency for feedback. As a creative team, we created a saying, “Use your voice or lose your choice.”
The idea for this pilot was to be colleague based and person-centered. And perhaps not everyone bought into the idea. Maybe there were some who thought that wellbeing has no place in the office and there were some (although very few, well, there were only two people to be exact) who saw this as a waste of time. However, one could argue this was something that reflected about them and not the program.
But either way, at a time when most people logged off from their workstations and quit for the day, we held an hour long seminar in a downtown, New York City conference room where people logged in from their remote location to talk about personal safety and happiness.
For the record, this is one of my proudest groups. I listened to people discuss their worries and their fears, and at the same time, we laughed and we found a way to discuss mental health and wellbeing with a sense of lightheartedness that was refreshing and fulfilling.
O’Neill was right. People who feel safe to share and communicate with their teams are more apt to show a deeper appreciation for their job as well as their company. People who believe they are valued and heard as well as appreciated and honored are more likely to go above and beyond.
However, people who feel like they are slaved to their job or shackled to their desk with chains will tend to work with the sentiment that they are chained to a desk and slaved to their work. They will approach each day with an unenthused ethic and an uninterested approach to the rest of their team.
We asked for feedback after each session. We asked what the colleagues thought about the sessions and if the sessions were helpful to them. The answers were overwhelmingly positive.
Our focus to create a safe environment and to learn and understand our thinking processes and our decision making skills were based on one specific detail: Safety.
The dictionary defines safety as the freedom from the occurrence of risk or injury, danger, or loss.
Meanwhile, we are in a sea of billions in this world. Billions of us have to find our way through life. We have to figure out how to get through the day, in one piece and somehow make it home safely.
I suppose life has been this way since the dawn of our species. However, I’m sure our fears of being mauled by a wild animal or staying warm in a cave have been updated to an advanced lifestyle.
Still, there are worries and fears, which might not be life threatening and the dangers might be different, but the need to survive and be safe are still essential to all.
There are different threats. There are cyberbullies. There are the gossip mills and the rumor factories. There are cultural and communication differences. There are intimidations regarding positions, titles, bosses and supervisors.
Let’s not forget that there are the personal struggles such as anxiety, depression, the struggles and challenges that come with home life. There are health concerns and relationship problems that happen to us all.
As a matter of fact, life happens to everyone regardless of their trade or the work in the C-suites or in the mail room or if their collar is blue or white. Therefore, the need to understand personal safety and feel safe is important to one and all.
Our idea was to build an employee-based, satisfaction program. I say things like “we” and “our” because although I was the content writer and the deliverer, I was not alone in this effort. In fact, I had the best team anyone could ever ask for!
We ran this pilot for ten weeks.
Even though the pilot was finished and the program was no longer available online, we saw colleagues in one of the largest firms in the world try to log back in to discuss their wellbeing.
The email chain was lengthy and the charge to start a petition to keep this group going was heard loud and clear.
People want to be happy.
This is obvious. However, people also want to be valued and appreciated. And in all honesty, there’s no way to allow someone to feel more valued than to allow them the freedom to be included, be heard, appreciated and respected.
This pilot was bigger than me. I know this because I had help. In fact, I had the best help possible. I had people who allowed me to create and speak. I had people who encouraged me to be me, to express my thoughts and ideas and to feel safe that I am appreciated.
Safe to say, this was one of the best experiences of my life . . .