The Perfect Gift

“Caring is not enough. Not nearly enough

~Paul O’Neill

Looking at the calendar, you’ve got less than ten shopping days till Christmas. Still in the market for something to give to all of those fine followers of yours? If so, I’ve got the perfect gift.

You see someone working hard, but not safe. That’s something every leader sees; some leaders more than others. Should you say something?

Of course you should. You are a leader, right? The more useful question is, “What should you say?”

I’ve asked that question to thousands of leaders the world over. I’m sure it comes as no great surprise that I get a lot of different answers. As to exactly what those are, often it’s something as simple as, “Put your PPE on” or, “Please hold on to the handrail.” Sometimes it’s the clever: “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those answers, but if you’ve been to one of our classes (or read the chapter in Alive And Well) you know there’s a better answer. A “Best Practice” is what it’s called; in this case, the best practice for intervention: something we’ve been teaching for the better part of two decades.

As to where that best practice came from, the answer is you.

Having hung around three generations of leaders, including some who are really great at managing safety performance, it’s stunningly obvious that how the best leaders approach these conversations is different—and better.

And that difference does make a difference.

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  Did you know that gem came straight out of the Oval Office? Back in the day when its resident was named Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt: same guy who advised, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Some leaders want to apply the advice about caring when intervening: “First things first, when you see someone working unsafe, you have to say something positive. Otherwise, they won’t think you care.”

Really?  So, if intervention isn’t gift wrapped with a compliment, the follower will think the leader doesn’t care. Likewise, saying something nice shows just how much a leader cares.

Not really. Intervening when someone’s at risk is showing care. It’s a wonderful gift, no matter who gives it.

Or how it’s packaged.

Perhaps you’ve heard of a leader named Paul O’Neill. Back in the 80’s, he was appointed as the CEO of a huge industrial company, Alcoa Aluminum. A colleague of mine knew him long before he got the big job at Alcoa: worked for him in another business. His opinion: O’Neill was a good guy, but not a great leader.

And absolutely not great at managing safety performance.

If you wanted to go home, alive and well at the end of the day, back in those days, Alcoa was not the kind of place you wanted to work. Of course, their execs thought otherwise: “We’re in the top third of US industries in safety.” Translating numbers into people, that meant every year a fair number of people went going home—seriously injured.

You don’t have to picture the “meet and greet” between this newly appointed CEO and the investment analysts. It’s detailed by Charles Duhigg in his book, The Power Of Habit:

“He looked dignified, solid, confident. Then he opened his mouth: “I want to talk about worker safety.”

The first words from the newly appointed CEO were about managing safety performance?

Eventually someone asked him about inventories…another asked about capital ratios.

“I’m not certain you heard me. If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures. If we bring our injury rates down, it won’t be because of cheerleading or the nonsense you sometimes hear from other CEO’s.”

Cheerleading or nonsense coming from some CEO, huh?

If it were me in the audience, I’d have stood up and cheered. And trampled over the investment community, who thought otherwise: Sell, sell, sell! Some idiot’s running the show. If you’d taken their advice, sold your stock, you’d have missed out, big time. Within a year, profits rose to an all-time high.  Over his tenure, Alcoa’s stock price appreciated by a factor of five. All by zeroing in on managing safety performance.

That’s one heck of a gift to the owners.

As to worker safety, thirteen years after taking the reins at Alcoa, when Paul O’Neill retired, Alcoa’s company-wide injury rate was one tenth of what it was on his Day One.

Not hard to figure out who benefited from that.


Four months into his tenure, at one of his mills, an eighteen year-old employee, with all of three months experience, working the night shift (Wait a minute: two decades earlier, that guy could have been me!) didn’t go home at all.

A workplace fatality.

After he was briefed on the investigation findings, Mr. O’Neill told his leadership team­­­­—you know, the Division Presidents and Senior VP’s, probably all sitting in their favorite chairs around that big, shiny mahogany table in the Board Room at World HQ—“We killed him.”

Those were his exact words, as he gave his account of the event, in a speech he gave years later.

 “I really didn’t like saying that. And they hated for me to say that…That was a really important lesson. Because up to that point, people would get tears in their eyes about this kind of event, and they thought that was all they really had to do.

Caring isn’t enough. Caring is not nearly enough.”

So much for gift-wrapping the safety message. Or telling people you care.


Duhigg devoted an entire chapter to O’Neill’s obsessive focus on managing safety performance: “Keystone Habits, Or The Ballad Of Paul O’Neill” If you’re interested in culture change, the chapter offers a very powerful—yet stunningly simple—means to achieve that ambitious goal.

Of course, simple and easy are not the same thing.

If this “keystone habit” process were easy, every leader on the planet would have long since mastered its execution. Problem is, first you have to pick the right habit; then you have to figure out exactly how to make that a habit practiced by followers. A lot of followers, not all of whom think you’re a genius.

Asked why he chose safety as his primary and specific focus as the newly appointed CEO, decades later, O’Neill explained:

“I went to basics. Everyone deserves to leave work as they arrive, right? You shouldn’t be scared that feeding your family is going to kill you. That’s what I decided to focus on: everyone’s safety habits.”

In the practice of leadership, that’s called perspective. Perspective is a gift every leader can—and should—give to themselves.

Some do. Many don’t.


As to exactly what that new keystone habit looked like, down in the chain of command, O’Neill offered this example. Involving an executive. Probably the same guy who was satisfied with the way things were—before O’Neill showed up, and started obsessing about safety.

“An executive …stopped at a street excavation near his house because they didn’t have a trench box, and gave everyone a lecture on the importance of proper procedures. It was the weekend, and he stopped his car, with his kids in the back, to lecture city workers about trench safety.

That isn’t natural, but that’s the point of it. We do this stuff without thinking about it now.”

“Doing stuff without thinking about it” is the simple definition of habit. The habits of people working in an organization are the culture of the organization.

Paul O’Neill may not have started out as a great safety leader. But he did decide to lead safety. Given what he accomplished, he must have become darn good at it.

It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish.

The Perfect Gift

As to that perfect gift for every single one of your followers, I’m sure by now you’ve got it figured out. It’s the gift that every follower on the planet who works for a living wants, appreciates, and values: the gift of going home, alive and well at the end of every day.

It’s a gift that doesn’t even have to be gift-wrapped.

But that perfect gift requires more than words……cheerleading. A leader actually has to do something—actually do a lot of things—to make it happen. Things that are not always easy things to do; but always the right things to do.

Caring is not enough. Caring is not nearly enough.

‘Tis the Season

While we’re on the subject of gift giving, on behalf of all of us in the Balmert Consulting practice, we’d like to say thanks—and give thanks—for the gift of you: good clients, friends, and role models. Thanks for privilege and pleasure of knowing you, working with you, watching you, up close and personal, and learning from you.

You are our business.

And, to borrow a line from the deceased partner of Marley and Scrooge, the ghost of Jacob, mankind is your business.

Best wishes for the holiday,

Paul Balmert
December 2017

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