The Morality of Excellence

When Paul O’Neil became CEO of Alcoa, he told the workforce that he would negotiate with them on anything except their safety. O’Neil made safety the lens through which every process and system could be measured. The result, workplace accidents went down and continued to go down long after he retired. O’Neil left behind a leadership system that required leaders to look out for the safety of the workforce. He considered it wrong that a worker would ever be in a place of having to work and worry about their physical safety.

I frequently hear researchers, pundits, PhD’s, and just plain folks talking about the high moral value of taking care of the workforce. It is a good argument, but incomplete. During O’Neil’s tenure as CEO, the market valuation of Alcoa surged from $3 billion to $27.5 billion, and net income rose from $200 million to $1.5 billion, while also making Alcoa one of the safest places to work in America. When Paul retired, it was safer to work in an Alcoa foundry with 2000 (F) liquid aluminum flowing around than in the back office of an insurance company shuffling paper. There is no conflict between caring for the workforce and economic returns. A high level of engagement in the workforce will drive economic returns.

Now let’s talk about another kind of morality—the morality of excellence. In twenty-five years of consulting, I have never met one worker who was excited about going to work every day for a mediocre organization. Yet, I have met many leaders who were just fine with average. When leaders accept mediocre as acceptable, they force it onto their workforce. They rob them of the opportunity of being on a championship-caliber team. It is abusive of a workforce that is craving to be proud of where they work. This is immoral. However, in an all too rare occurrence, I have seen organizations intentionally engage every member of the workforce around a singular common value. It might be respect, relationship, service, safety and even love. In these rare organizations, not only do they get the best out of their workforce, but they lay the foundation for humans to flourish.

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