Don't Shoot The Messenger (Part 2)

February 27, 2004
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Dear Subscriber,

DON'T SHOOT THE MESSENGER (Part 2)

Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's ill-fated foray into Washington politics has been captured in the book, "The Price of Loyalty." We're using his tale to study how a maverick can get marooned when working outside of the consensus. With O'Neill sharing many values and methods favored by safety and health professionals, it's a cautionary story.

Last week we looked at how, like a moth magnetized to the flame, you can jump into a job that wasn't right for you in the first place. And how chemistry with the boss can inflate or deflate your clout. This week in ISHN's e-newsletter we look at how communication, culture, and your own calculations influence your chances for success.

COMMUNICATION

As Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill enjoyed what many safety and health pros crave — access to the boss. Golden opportunities, O'Neill called them. He and the President met about once a week for 30- to 60-minute one-on-one meetings. It was O'Neill's chance to push his agenda, make his arguments.

But more often than not he walked away from these one-on-ones troubled, confused or disappointed. The door was open, but no one was home, it seemed. His boss said little, explained little, seldom questioned.

O'Neill couldn't read his boss, resorting to interpreting body language. Did a nod seem to affirm? He wasn't sure. A tilt of the head indicate understanding?

Almost two years into his job, O'Neill still didn't know how his boss thought or formed strategy. Couldn't figure out where his convictions came from. O'Neill acted on facts and information. His boss used instinct and faith.

Then there was the irritating business of nicknames. O'Neill never wore his well, believing them a bully tactic, a way of asserting dominance. "Hey there, Big O," his boss would bark, kicking off their meetings. Here's your tag, now wear it, is how O'Neill took it. "Sounds like an appliance salesman in Austin," said one of the boss's aides. Maybe it was just the boss's style. He had been handing out nicknames since his prep school days, after all. No matter, it was another sign of dissonance.

CULTURE

"The town's changed," Alcoa's VP of government affairs told O'Neill before he took the Treasury job. So much more partisan, hard charging, kill or be killed. "I wouldn't take the job," he advised.

That didn't scare O'Neill. Why should it? He was a wildly successful multi-millionaire coming off an extraordinary run at Alcoa. In 13 years the company went from $1.1 million in earnings on sales of $8 billion to $1.5 billion in earnings on sales of $23 billion.

Self-confidence, self-esteem, self-efficacy — not a problem.

Plus, he believed himself savvy in the ways of Potomac politics, having lived and worked in Washington for 16 years early in his career, earning kudos for his work at the Office of Management and Budget under Presidents Nixon and Ford.

Imagine a supremely confident safety professional coming off a successful stretch at a major corporation, lowering incident rates far below industry averages, embraced by his union, winning accolades for a world class safety and health program, at the top of his game. What can't you tackle next?

Not as much as you think if there's no chemistry with the boss, no productive give and take, and a culture hardened with values and objectives quite unlike yours. O'Neill would learn that politics as it's now played is not about being right, it's about winning.

In the end, he felt like he was in a boat with 20 people, all rowing one way, except him. The boat keeps moving downstream, and you wonder what's the value of your presence. Is this the best way to spend your time? At some point, all that's left is to jump out, he said.

CALCULATIONS

O'Neill is no quitter. But he might have acted in ways that made it easy for him to be pushed out of the boat. Toward the end, at one meeting, he found himself disagreeing on a course of action and telling the boss, "Let me be perfectly blunt… any other path is not responsible."

You can imagine a safety and health professional, frustrated after several years of being frozen out of policy-making, believing the boss is heading toward a decision that will damage support for safety, saying something similar about the "responsible path." Career suicide?

Here's where a personal risk assessment comes into play. O'Neill might never have accepted the Treasury job if not for calculations based on where he was at in his career. Let's see, the man had $60 million in the bank. Family raised. Handpicked successor in his old job. Before Washington came calling, all he had planned to do was drive America's back roads for months with his wife in a Bentley.

As O'Neill told Ron Suskind, author of "The Price of Loyalty," before they started the book that was sure to agitate old acquaintances, "I'm an old guy, and I'm rich. And there's nothing they can do to hurt me."

In contrast, Suskind had earlier written a magazine article featuring an official in the Bush White House who had cranked out a three-thousand-word memo criticizing his bosses for lacking policy vision and allowing the White House to be run by political "Mayberry Machiavellis." On the day of publication, the memo-writer fielded calls from the White House and, using the exact words of the administration's press spokesman, reversed field and said his own observations had been groundless and baseless.

"I guess he had to make a calculation," remarked O'Neill. "He's a young man. Personally and professionally, can he really afford" to be blacklisted for the rest of his career?

Ask John Henshaw, Jerry Scannell, or John Pendergrass — all safety and health professionals from industry — about the calculations each made before jumping into the fire that is the OSHA chief's job. Each was far enough along in their career where they felt it was a risk they could afford. Timing is essential to the calculation. There's a reason no safety and health pro under age 50 has ever come out of industry to take the top OSHA job.

CLOSER TO HOME

Here's a safety and health pro with some personal risks to weigh: "I have to go out on a limb and tell the division president what we need to do, versus his list of quick fixes," he said in an email. "A task not easily accomplished. Any suggestions?"

Next week, in part three of our series, "Don't shoot the Messenger," we ask experts to help him face the ancient challenge of telling the emperor his clothes are missing. Our subscriber is right, it's no easy task. Just ask Paul O'Neill.

Dave Johnson is the ISHN E-News editor. He can be reached at djsafe@bellatlantic.net, (610) 666-0261; fax (610) 666-1906.

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