Pat Woertz says Good Gossip is Good

Posted by: Jena McGregor on October 10, 2007

I just stopped by World Business Forum, the mega leadership confab at Radio City Music Hall, to hear Patricia A. Woertz, the CEO of Archer Daniels Midland and the sixth most powerful woman in business, according to Fortune, talk about “leading organizational change.” After doing so, I’ve decided there must be a day in CEO school where they teach you how to talk for 45 minutes and say nothing specific. That, and how the word “journey”—complained about earlier—is the perfect word to substitute in for “don’t make any calls on how we’re doing yet, Wall Street, ‘cuz we’re on a journey.”

Her first example was from her experience leading change at a prior company which I don’t think she ever named (her previous leadership experience includes Chevron and Gulf Oil). She managed to tell the whole story of how she led the organization from their worst year ever to great profits with almost no detail. She instituted an email address giving employees a place to address complaints. She held very frequent teleconference calls with her senior execs. And, not surprisingly, what she lost most sleep on was naming the new leadership team. Once she had the new team in place, she focused on teambuilding—encouraging everyone to talk about their strengths and weaknesses (“the gold and the coal” as she called it) and develop more trust amongst themselves. While Woertz’s speech seems to have inspired a number of people in the audience, the vagueness of her stories left me wanting much more.

A couple of interesting tidbits I did manage to glean from her speech: Woertz says “I believe teams need to positively gossip about each other.” That’s a great analogy for sharing others’ strengths. She also says that at ADM, after a record earnings quarter, she decided to share an equivalent cash amount with everyone in the company, no matter their geography, seniority or job. Given the globalization of teams and differing compensation set-ups across the globe, a move like that can go a long way in making every one feel like part of the same team. And, says Woertz, that’s exactly the feedback she got.

Reader Comments

Mark Amtower

October 10, 2007 3:20 PM

I loved the comment about "there must be a day in CEO school where they teach you how to talk for 45 minutes and say nothing specific." This is how I feel when I sit in keynotes in DC - at events where industry CEOs and other luminaries come to speak to an audience of government officials and others who sell to the government.

"Platitudes r Us" must be the name of that course, as invaribaly there will be lip service to many "government initiatives" many of which there company is not involved in and which obviously the CEO does not understand.

It is fun to stay for the entire speech only because, when they start, the room may be half full (use the glass analogy), but when they are done the room is darn near empty!

keep up the good stuff!

Brandon W

October 11, 2007 2:51 PM

"Leading organizational change" means defining a new culture to reflect a new reality and communicating that new culture in compelling ways to overcome the resistance of an established organizational culture to change. That "reality" may be a new course for the company's products and markets, a new drive to attend to the customer, or any other change among a myriad of possibilities. "Compelling ways" involve the establishment of new norms through direct and symbolic communication, including heroic stories and mythology, and graphic symbols. The benefits of the new culture must be communicated clearly to address the needs of the "buying public"; i.e. the employees.

Anything less is rubbish. Vagueness and off-hand gestures like "open" email accounts are useless and destructive to the entire practice of organizational change.

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