They thought he had lost his mind. The business was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, but the CEO had latched onto a decidedly nonstrategic topic: workplace safety. No one could possibly say it was unimportant, but concerned investors wanted to hear details about markets, revenues, and profit. Where was the business plan?
An analyst asked about finance metrics. Nothing doing. “I'm not certain you heard me,” the CEO answered. “If you want to understand how Alcoa is doing, you need to look at our workplace safety figures.”
You might recognize the speaker as Paul O'Neill, who merits a whole chapter in Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.1 O'Neill used that power to engineer an amazing turnaround. A year after he gave his unexpected lecture about workplace safety to a group of dismayed shareholders and industry observers, company performance had rebounded and profits had reached record highs.
In bringing Alcoa back from the precipice, O'Neill pursued a strategy embraced by successful managers and team leaders to close the gap between aspirations and action: he got specific. He avoided the all-too-common CEO “cheerleading,” as he put it dismissively, and focused on just one concrete thing. Research on positive behavioral change has confirmed the efficacy of pinpointing measurable actions and monitoring small, step-by-step improvements. For example, would-be fitness fanatics ...