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Leadership advice from a veteran CEO

Paul Anderson, former CEO and chairman of BHP Billiton and Duke Energy, shares lessons from his own career

March 5, 2015

Paul Anderson

Paul Anderson

At the first Dean’s Innovative Leader Series presentation of the semester on March 2, Paul Anderson waved a yellowed piece of paper filled with advice that he wrote down during a leadership presentation he heard “decades ago” when he was a student.

Anderson, the former CEO of BHP Billiton and Duke Energy, shared some of that advice, as well as some of his own observations from a long career in several different industries. In 1998, Anderson began leading BHP, an Australian mining company. During his tenure, BHP merged with Billiton in 2001 to create the largest diversified natural resources company in the world.

Anderson said one piece of advice he recalled from the presentation he attended so many years ago was so powerful that he never wrote it down: don’t run out of cash. He said he’s been surprised at the number of times he’s come across entrepreneurs who had done just that. “It doesn’t matter how good you are; people expect you to have cash,” he said.

Anderson was also happy to share some of his mistakes. He recalled his first job at Ford Motor Co., when he was newly minted with an MBA from Stanford University. He showed up to his first day on the job, walked into the supervisor’s office, and asked what he could do.

“I was ready to change the world,” he remembered.

The supervisor handed him a stack of papers for the next policy meeting, and asked Anderson to deliver them to executives throughout the company. Anderson asked his supervisor if he was serious, and he was. So Anderson took a map and spent the afternoon driving around Detroit delivering papers.

He returned the next day, and was told to deliver papers again. It continued all week. On Friday, Anderson stormed into his boss’s office, and announced, “You don’t understand. I’m an MBA. I have an engineering degree. I’m really smart, and I’m wasting time delivering papers.”

His boss surveyed him and said, “Let me ask you something. Did you read the papers?”

Anderson had not.

“Did you meet the people who you delivered them to?”

Anderson had not.

“Did you tour the facilities?”

Again, no.

The message struck Anderson, as well as his boss. In his first week, he had been given a prime opportunity to learn about Ford, meet key executives, and see the facilities, and he had squandered it.

“Even if you think you have the worst job, there’s something in it. There’s something you can get out of it, if you try,” Anderson said. “Don’t waste your time on excuses.

Years later, when he was CEO at BHP Billiton, one of his direct reports chided him for not taking plant safety seriously. Anderson insisted he supported safety practices, but his colleague pointed out that he drove too fast, jaywalked, refused to use handrails at the plant, and sped around on a motorcycle without a helmet.

“I completely changed how I addressed these things,” Anderson said. “You cannot align an organization around a goal you don’t believe in. Then you have to demonstrate that you really believe in it. In leadership, you have got to be true to what you are trying to get people to do.”