In my forthcoming book Marketing Rebellion: The Most Human Company Wins (now available for pre-order) I document the radical changes technology has enabled in consumer behavior. The problem is, most people in our profession are either unaware, or are ignoring, these changes and just keep chunking out their work like nothing is going on.
Adjusting to this transformation will be difficult and it’s going to take more than a little tweaking to the company culture.
There’s no such thing as a grassroots cultural change. Change has to be sponsored from the top. The person who controls the budget and the strategy also determines the company culture. And that person is going to have to lead with an expectation of a Quantum Leap in marketing performance. You can’t tweak your way to success in this environment.
Today, I’d like to tell you one of the most amazing stories of cultural change I ever experienced. And I had a front row seat.
The pain was real
I witnessed one of the most dramatic examples of this ideal when I was in a company that was hurting too many employees. Our chairman, Paul O’Neill, decided to do something about it.
I was lucky to have spent much of my career at Alcoa. During my tenure there, Alcoa was a principled blue-chip company. Like any corporate giant, the company had its politics and problems but it was also a place where integrity mattered. Leadership mattered. I started at the company as a college intern, and I decided that I wanted to become a full-time employee if there was any chance that I could end up as smart and inspiring as the incredible leaders I met there.
Alcoa was a Fortune 100 company whose main line of business was mining, refining, and producing every type of aluminum product imaginable. The work environment in the mines and plants presented many opportunities to get hurt: massive machinery, molten metal, toxic chemicals, and fumes rising from “pots” heated to 1,400 degrees.
Although the company operated in a professional and ethical way – adhering to every government safety standard – it was not unusual for people to get injured. And a couple times each year, somebody in the world of Alcoa was killed.
I’ll never forget the sick feeling that swept through the company when we learned that an hourly employee, a young mother, had been crushed and killed by a piece of equipment at our Indiana plant. She had actually been on the plant safety committee and helped write the rule she violated in the accident. Every person in my office building walked around in stunned silence. I never imagined I would attend a Monday morning staff meeting where people cried and prayed.
The Quantum Leap mentality
When Paul O’Neill became chairman, he vowed this would never happen again – nobody would get hurt at this company. Frankly, most people thought he was irrational. There was just no way you could work in an industrial environment like Alcoa – where some of the plants were more than 100 years old – and not be at risk.
But Paul was determined and steadfast. He demanded a “quantum leap” change in our mentality. When people were getting injured, incremental improvement was unacceptable. He started every meeting with a discussion of safety. Every plant tour began with a challenge over safety. He even talked about safety on his quarterly calls with financial analysts.
And then something happened that changed the company forever.
The pivot point
At the annual shareholders meeting, a group of Catholic nuns from Mexico showed up in the front row of the auditorium. When it was time for the question and answer period, one of the nuns shyly raised a hand. She was acknowledged by the CEO and stood up to tell a story of how employees were being hurt in an Alcoa plant near Monterrey. She said she was attending the meeting in Pittsburgh to protest the work conditions. You could tell by the look on the chairman’s face that he was gravely concerned, and he invited the nuns to meet privately with him after the public meeting.
As soon as it could be arranged, Paul boarded a company plane for Mexico to see for himself what was happening. When he came back to the corporate office, he fired the group vice president responsible for the division and the working conditions at the plant. The person he fired was one of the most respected executives in the company and an obvious choice to lead it one day. He was five levels above the Monterrey plant manager. Nobody could believe this beloved leader, at that level of the company, had been fired over safety.
The message sent a tremor throughout the company. If it’s possible to change a global corporate culture in one hour, it happened that day.
Cultural change starts at the top
What happened next seemed miraculous. New systems, training, and investments in safety helped the injury and incident rate plummet. Within a few years, the company’s injury rate was statistically so low that it was safer to work at an Alcoa aluminum smelting plant than in a white-collar office job at IBM. The turnaround was so monumental that the company hosted professionals from other industries to teach them how to keep their people safe, too.
What Paul O’Neill realized was that transforming the culture was not just the right thing to do, it was the profitable thing to do. When a company cares deeply for employees, that culture naturally will extend to caring about processes, products, and customers. He showed through his leadership that we could do anything. If we could make a quantum leap in safety, why not in customer service, quality, and profitability?
We became a company of quantum leaps.
Your quantum leap
There’s a powerful lesson here for all corporate change, and especially for the change needed in marketing, PR, and advertising. Most marketers I know are asleep and don’t even realize it. At Alcoa, we were asleep. We didn’t know what our possibilities truly were. The culture was the culture … and we lived with it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Principled, steadfast leadership can forge a new path.
Driving change in your organization might not begin with a word-of-mouth marketing effort or creating cool new customer experiences. It might mean getting your leadership onboard and helping them understand that the consumer rebellion is at your door.