Click here to print this article
 / Winter 2012 / Issue 69(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Thought Leader Interview: William J. O’Rourke

But there were also times that I didn’t listen to our GM. When I first came to Russia, my office was the size of a football field. There was a 40-square-foot marble bathroom and a conference room the same size as the office, both just for me. Behind my office was a room with four leather couches and a refrigerator. I’m sure the good old boys in the good old days went back there to drink vodka and smoke cigars while they made decisions.

The first thing I did was open up the conference room so anybody could use it. Then I converted a theater into open offices with cubicles. I moved into a cubicle myself, with everyone else around me.

S+B: What was the GM’s reaction?
He was livid. “You can’t do that,” he told me. “I tell people you’re the big boss. Then I show them you are in a cubicle and nobody believes me.” He complained about this all the time.

S+B: But you didn’t move?
Absolutely not. I stayed there until I left.

A Starting Point for Ethics

S+B: What led you to this egalitarian approach? How did it relate to your efforts on safety and ethics?
My experiences working with Paul O’Neill taught me the power of leadership. In 1998, he moved the company’s headquarters to a new building where the entire space was wide open. Everyone was in the same size cubicle with exactly the same furniture. O’Neill wanted our offices to be wide open so we would be open to each other.

I tried to do something similar at Alcoa Russia. Our success in Russia has reinforced my belief that integrity and openness can be fostered no matter the company or the conditions.

I try to teach this concept of openness and leadership by example to MBA students, our future business leaders. The actions of leaders set the standards of behavior for everyone else in the organization. If the behavior of leaders consistently embodies integrity, openness, and honesty, more people will follow their lead.

S+B: What happened after you came back from Russia in 2008?
I was appointed the vice president of global business services and chief information officer at Alcoa. I often say they hit the control, alt, and delete keys when they made me CIO. I had no technology experience. My responsibility was to prepare the next guy, who had the deep technology background, to lead the IT organization. He wasn’t a people person. I put my office next to his and told him I would make him a kinder, gentler CIO. I tried to make sure he would get the job when I moved on, and he did; he held the position for a year and now he is the CEO of a decent-sized public company.

S+B: What did you do next?
I became vice president of environment, health, safety [EHS], and sustainability, my third time in EHS, and my last role before I retired as a full-time executive. I teach now because I am convinced that the issues we grappled with at Alcoa, particularly in Russia, are applicable elsewhere. I also believe most people have a sincere interest in learning more about ethics and its importance to good management.

S+B: Every once in a while, a major emerging-markets bribery case lands in the news — most recently, the scandal involving Walmart’s Mexico division. Alcoa, for that matter, has a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act [FCPA] case, filed in 2008 and still in court, about an alleged bribery case in Bahrain in the early 2000s. Do companies pay attention to the FCPA?
They do. The FCPA has been around for quite a while, so it has been clarified over time. Enforcement is more frequent and the sanctions are more severe now. Regardless of any particular case, there is evidence that this stricter environment leads to general overall probity, which is good for business in the long run. I still believe that personal conviction, values, and even virtue drive the “right” behavior more than the law. Enlightened business leaders act far beyond compliance because it’s right; they use their moral compass rather than rely only on the strict rules of the road.