My first job out of college was a corporate engineering position with a $3B multinational aluminum and chemical corporation.* My branch of engineering was highly specialized so, as a 22 year old, I was able to pick and chose which of several dozen multi-million dollar projects I wanted to work on at any of the company’s manufacturing facilities worldwide. My list of projects was a mile long with some involving serious health and safety concerns of employees. Every project required reconciling the production and financial needs of plant managers with the demands of corporate execs to maintain control over disparate operations. For a foot loose young man with an unlimited travel budget, I needed to balance my responsibilities with a desire to see the world.
You see, if you’re 22 years old and can choose between working in a can factory supplying a major European brewery with access to all the beer you can drink for free, or standing next to an 1,100 degree extrusion furnace on a 107 degree July day in the panhandle of Texas which would you choose?
Well… not so fast.
Business is about priorities. For your business to succeed, the needs of the company have to come first. Always.
The factory in Texas had just been cited for 15 serious OSHA violations. OSHA had given the plant manager 72 hours to develop a compliance plan or face immediate shutdown of the facility which, the company estimated, would result in lost revenue and expenses in the neighborhood of $50,000 per hour. I was scheduled to leave for the can plant the next morning, but changed my plans and was on a flight to Texas within three hours.
As it turns out, what was best for the company was also best for my career. Dealing with the OSHA citations afforded me some lifelong skills in dealing with a crisis, dealing with attorneys including facing depositions and testifying in legal proceedings, managing remediation projects, leaning about virtually every aspect of metal extrusion processes, not to mention high visibility and close contact with the corporate executives.
This early experience helped shape the way I’ve dealt with business ever since and was a foundational experience on my way to becoming a COO. As a COO, so many tasks and functions fall within your sphere of responsibilities. One needs to make choices rapidly and, often, with incomplete information. There are many methods of prioritization to choose from, each with emphasis on different metrics. However, if your guide is always to place the best interest of the company first, a lot of things seem to fall into place after that.
For example, when deciding on a location for your office, it’s always important to consider cost per square foot, building amenities and the lease terms, but those may not be the top priority. If the best thing for the business is a location that is attractive and convenient for employees, including proximity to low cost public transportation, ample free parking, easy access to restaurants and other services employees may need during the business day, then your choice of locations suddenly becomes much narrower. Attracting top talent and providing them with an environment that allows them to be productive and that also acknowledges their personal work/life balance, is in the best interest of the company. Such an environment may cost more nominally, but the added value of making life a little better for employees will usually result in them being willing to put in a longer day and be a factor in helping your company attract a great employee and retain them as they become aware of other opportunities.
In later posts, I’ll talk about means for identifying criteria and setting metrics for assessing problems and dealing with tasks. But, this post is about looking back on some formative experiences and sharing how they have influenced my ability to evolve into a successful C-Level executive. Setting priorities and putting the company first are top attributes for a COO to master. They’re important skills to instill in everyone in your organization as well.
*Approximately $9B in 2010 dollars when adjusted for inflation.