Selling the plan Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2007

James J. “Jim” O’Brien has led many changes at Ashland Inc. As chairman and CEO of the $7.2 billion diversified, global chemical company that serves customers in more than 100 countries, he has learned how crucial it is to get buy-in from both his management team and employees.

“You have to create awareness around what it is you’re trying to do,” O’Brien says. “It’s not just describing the strategy or talking about the size of the company you want to become or even, in some detail, some of the tactics you want to take. It’s more around, ‘What is it that the people have to do?’ That awareness piece is difficult to get people to truly understand and seek to understand and ask questions and get into.”

He says you first have to create awareness and unity among your management team.

“If they’re not aligned, that’s what the organization looks for is those gaps,” O’Brien says. “If they see me saying one thing and maybe the CFO says something contrary to what I say, they say, ‘Ah-ha! These guys aren’t on the same page, so we don’t have to be on the same page either.’ So they take that as an excuse not to engage.”

If you want to get an alignment, you first need a team of senior leaders who also know how to follow.

“A lot of people have discussion around leadership, but it’s just as important to have good followership,” O’Brien says. “If people can’t follow well as a senior team member, they’re not useful to the team. If you have a team of seven or eight senior leaders, if they’re all leading and not following, then you’ve got chaos because they may not all lead in the same direction. You need to have good strong leaders, but they have to have the ability to follow, as well. That even goes for the chairman and CEO.”

When you have people who can lead and follow, it helps create a group who will collectively discuss changes and come to a consensus. When they reach that consensus, it’s important to dig deeper into the details about that decision. O’Brien says with today’s PowerPoint age, people tend to gloss over the fine details.

“That’s where teams break apart and you get divergence,” he says. “If you understand how things can go wrong and what you would do about it when it goes wrong and already have a point of view around it and acknowledge that that risk is there, then Murphy’s Law will tell you that it will go wrong. When the team has to face that, then you don’t have a situation where people go off the reservation on you.”

Once the management team is on the same page and aligned and knows how to handle the problems that may arise, it’s important to communicate it to employees and get their buy-in. He says to just choose one to three key things to focus on and don’t try to do anything else. This keeps everyone focused and helps people understand what the priorities are.

“In the past when we’ve tried to do initiatives, especially large initiatives, it’s hard to create the desire inside the company to take on big things because the information is a program de jour, and they’re going to wait it out,” O’Brien says. “The bulk of the corporation will sit on the sidelines to see if it gains any traction or momentum, and then they’ll kick in. After five or six months, management usually loses their enthusiasm or desire, and it goes away.”

O’Brien says you have to maintain enthusiasm about it, so people know you’re serious and that it really is important. He also says you have to lead major changes yourself and can’t delegate them to someone else.

“You better believe it yourself, and I think that’s where most things fall apart,” he says. “They’ll read something in a magazine or go to a seminar and say, ‘That sounds neat. Let’s try it,’ and they delegate it to someone in that organization. That will never work. If you’re going to do big change, it has to be led by the CEO every hour, every minute of every day, and you can’t waiver because the organization is looking for that moment of opportunity to say, ‘Let’s not do this — that’s hard.’ There are thousands of people trying to convince you not to do it, so if you don’t believe it in your total heart and soul, don’t even try.”

HOW TO REACH: Ashland Inc., or (859) 815-3333