Don Cunningham: Advice From a Small Man Who Swings a Big Bat

By Colin McEvoy on July 26, 2017

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on July 24, 2017. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

When I saw the invitation I was struck with a boyish surge of excitement.

“You are cordially invited to a private lunch with Paul O’Neill,” is what my mind’s eye saw on the email-jammed computer screen.

Paul O’Neill! My favorite New York Yankee, the beating heart of the last Yankee dynasty, winners of four world championships. A man so intent on succeeding that failure meant bats were snapped in half and dugout water coolers went down. The perfect Irish-American Yankee.

As my eyes focused, I saw the subject line actually read “the Honorable Paul H. O’Neill.”

Odd. He was great but “honorable” seemed strange. Then I remembered. There was another famous Paul O’Neill, a business and government guy.

And, so it was. Nonetheless, I was interested, and I went.

It was a small gathering of Lehigh Valley regional leaders and corporate executives at an old farm turned into a corporate retreat center in Williams Township called Charter Farms.  The subject was safety, how – and, even more importantly, why to make the Lehigh Valley workplaces safer. The lofty goal is to create a regional safe community initiative.

No discussion of Yankee World Series championships, Derek Jeter, or Joe Torre. Turned out this mattered more, a lot more.

The Honorable Paul H. O’Neill is physically quite the opposite of baseball Paul O’Neill.  He’s 81-years-old, very slight with a small frame and can’t be more than 5’6” tall. He prefers sitting to standing when he speaks, and, at least that day, seemed to be hampered by a persistent dry cough.

It could be easy to overlook him, that is, until he speaks.

O’Neill is the former chairman and CEO of Alcoa and the former president of International Paper Company. He was Secretary of Treasury during the first two years of President George W. Bush and was a past deputy director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and an analyst with the U.S. Veterans Administration.

It’s not the resume, however, that makes you sit up and listen, it’s his message. He began his talk that afternoon saying that while the subject was safety he was going to talk about leadership. We soon understand why.

“There are three questions that every employee in every organization should be able to answer yes to, every day,” he said.

“Am I treated with dignity and respect by everyone in the organization every day?”

“Am I given what I need, including the resources, encouragement and training, to make a contribution to this organization that also gives meaning to my life?”

“Am I recognized every day by someone whose opinion I value?”

This was a bit like smoking a line drive into an infield of flat-footed fielders.

For the next 45 minutes he turned the paradigm of corporate and organizational leadership upside down. It’s the responsibility of the leader to serve the organization and its employees, not the other way around.  His view on employees: “If you’re here, you are important. If you are here and not important, we made a mistake.”

His view on pay structure and the current exploding disparity between CEO and worker compensation: “People should be paid the market rate for what they do, respecting for their geography and the competition. People at the lower end of the organization should earn 100 percent of (the pay) scale, those at the higher end (the executives and CEO) should earn 50 percent of scale with any remainder based on performance.”

His reasoning is that a corporation or organization is a team with every employee holding a position of value, as in baseball.

“Leadership is not about privilege, it’s about responsibility to all the people in your organization. Only a leader can create a value-based culture that does everything with honesty and integrity, even if you can get away with it.”

As an example he pointed to organizations that manipulate quarterly earning reports through accounting tricks like pushing back or moving up charges or by citing safety as a corporate value but tolerating injuries by not listening to employees, following up or using cost as a reason to not eliminate risk.

“If you truly believe that your people are your most important asset than nothing is more critical than their safety.”

Safety is an outcome of leadership if you believe every person matters.

I’ve worked as a professional since 1987. Because of the work I do, I’ve listened to thousands of presentations, read tens of thousands of articles and books on similar topics. I’ve never heard someone deliver the core message of leadership as clear as Mr. O’Neill. I was struck by how incongruent his message seemed in today’s world, a world where I’ve dealt with employers, or prospective employers, who view their workforce as merely a cost, who want to know how little they can get away with paying.

We all know the bottom line matters. But it was nice to hear a successful large company CEO and cabinet secretary not once mention it or shareholder value. For this Honorable Paul H. O’Neill, his evangelism is to remind leaders that people are the bottom line.

For me, the Yankee championships in 1996 and 1998-2001 are now a glorious bygone era. In listening to this retired octogenarian CEO, I couldn’t help think he represented a bygone era of corporate America, where leaders valued workers as much as shareholders and CEOs didn’t make 350 times as much as frontline workers. Turns out, all these Paul O’Neills make me wistful for yesterday.

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