When Paul O’Neil delivered his first speech as CEO at Alcoa (the aluminum manufacturing giant), he shocked the audience of shareholders when he disclosed his top priority for his tenure as CEO. Instead of doing the usual dance where the CEO talks about increasing sales, increasing margins and driving down costs, he talked about something that seemed completely unrelated to revenue. His top priority: worker safety.
Worker safety!? The shareholders were appalled. After all, what does safety have to do with share value on the New York Stock Exchange? Countless shareholders immediately dumped their shares, thinking that Alcoa hired an out-of-touch powder puff CEO…someone who lacked the guts to make tough decisions and focus on the bottom line.
The result? During O’Neill’s tenure as CEO at Alcoa, shares more than tripled in value. O’Neill explained his logic when he said, “I knew I had to transform Alcoa. But you can’t order people to change. So I decided I was going to start by focusing on one thing. If I could start disrupting the habits around one thing, it would spread throughout the entire company.”