“What would Bill do?” That’s what hundreds of Bill O’Rourke’s former colleagues and students ask themselves when confronted with ethical business dilemmas. Since retiring from Alcoa in 2011, O’Rourke has led university and business ethics programs and nonprofits, including Sustainable Pittsburgh’s Board of Directors. Read on for his Insider’s perspective.
Your new book, The Business Ethics Field Guide, counters the idea that business ethics is a “nice to have” or even an outdated notion. Why is it relevant for today’s leaders?
I have learned over the years that integrity is the most important characteristic of a truly enlightened leader. Leaders who are characterized by honesty, openness and transparency set the example for others to follow. Leaders who choose to do “right” make that choice in all areas including environmental stewardship, philanthropy, treating others with dignity and respect, safety, education, health, diversity, etc. — and isn’t that what we need in sustainability leadership in the world today?
I am proud of my book. In the book, I provided real examples from my career and tell how they were handled. Hopefully the book can help the reader steer through such dilemmas, help guide the reader to a positive solution and, in the process, make the world a little bit better.
You helped lead Alcoa to a culture of record-breaking safety, from plants in the United States to challenging overseas locations like Russia. What’s your advice for leaders looking to transform the culture at their companies to ones grounded in safety and other sustainability practices?
I had a great leader to follow, then CEO Paul O’Neill. Paul made safety a true value at Alcoa. He spoke safety at every meeting. He drove for improvements in reporting, in sharing safety risks across the corporation, and in eliminating those risks. His safety focus, from the top of the corporation, resulted in incident rates falling every year through his 13-year tenure until Alcoa became the safest manufacturing corporation. More importantly, he set the culture so that the incident rate would continue to fall long after he left the corporation. He built a legacy that lasted for years. That was an excellent example of sustainability.
When I was asked to become the first president of Alcoa’s Russian operation, I reviewed the situation and found that everything needed to be improved: pricing, compensation, relationships, systems, procedures, financial processes, housekeeping, product quality — everything. Where do you start? I decided to start with safety.
These two huge Russian facilities averaged five deaths per year for 50 years, their incident rates were 10 times higher than Alcoa’s, none of the 16,000 employees wore protective equipment, there were no safety meetings, no safety training. By focusing on safety, putting employees in protective equipment, training the employees on safety, auditing the health and safety practices, focusing on housekeeping and making safety a true value, positive change happened. In the first full calendar year that Alcoa owned these Russian facilities, there were no fatalities, and today they have gone seven years without a fatality. These Russian facilities have incident rates lower than Alcoa’s exemplary corporate rate. And, by driving improvements in safety, we demonstrated that improvements are possible everywhere.
You’ve been a thought leader in the CEOs for Sustainability executive council from its formation a year ago. What role do you envision for the region’s business leaders in shaping a new, sustainable economy for this region?
I have been privileged to be involved with Sustainable Pittsburgh. I have served on the Board of Directors and was privileged to be the chairman for a term. This organization is leading sustainable change in our region through progressive initiatives such as the Green Workplace Challenge, the Sustainable Community Development Network, Sustainable Business Compact, and most recently through the Sustainable Pittsburgh Restaurant program.
Most recently, Executive Director Court Gould asked me to facilitate a relatively new group — CEOs for Sustainability. This is a group of enlightened regional leaders — led by Jerry MacCleary of Covestro and Ron Gdovic of WindStax Energy — who have embraced the premise that the regional corporate leaders can help to drive real, positive sustainable change for the Pittsburgh region. To hear the responsible ideas that are being suggested and implemented by Eat’n Park Hospitality Group, IKEA, eLoop, PITT OHIO, LANXESS, Burns and Scalo, Oxford Development Company, DMI Companies, Aquatech International, Montgomery & Rust and even the Pittsburgh Pirates (and others) is heartening. I have come to admire these leaders and their sustainability lieutenants who are committed to their organizational success, of course, but are also fully committed to the sustainable success of our region.
How do you see the sustainability field evolving?
I have served in a number of corporate functions and am convinced that all jobs are sustainability jobs. In all areas, we look for reductions in water usage and in generated waste, we look for opportunities to reuse and recycle. In every function, there are opportunities to conserve through leveling energy demand throughout the day, reducing travel requirements, turning off the lights and not printing documents if not required. No matter where we work, we all have the opportunity to influence others to be more responsible through education and communication. We should all embrace the challenge to make a sustainable difference every day, regardless of our job title.
Since retirement I find myself getting involved in meaningful areas: teaching business ethics at universities, improving health care, working with leaders to drive corporate safety, promoting business sustainability with Sustainable Pittsburgh, serving on the advisory board of the Duquesne University Center for Environmental Research and Education, John Carroll University Board of Directors, the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University, mentoring the military through American Corporate Partners, and I have just agreed to be a tour guide at Carrie Furnace for the Rivers of Steel organization. I find it interesting that all of these areas seem to be based primarily on various sustainability ideas and principles. It’s what I find rewarding.