CATERPILLAR CEO Doug oberhelman

“We decided that the culture had to be changed. And we decided we were going to shock the culture. And one of the great cultural strengths of Caterpillar is it was a promote-from-within company. And one of the great cultural weaknesses it brought was a sense of job entitlement until retirement. And it had gotten more and more ingrained with time, so we said, in order to get everyone’s attention, we are going to realign the company.”

–Doug Oberhelman


Douglas Oberhelman is a chairman and CEO of Caterpillar, Inc. the global industrial company that drives a large part of the emerging world’s development. He is also director for the boards of Eli Lilly and Co. and The Nature Conservancy’s Illinois chapter. He is a member of the boards of directors of the National Association of Manufacturers, the Manufacturing Institute and the Wetlands American Trust. We met to discuss his favorite topic, strategy, and how great strategies are the result of great companies, not the other way around.

Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman

Caterpillar has a legendary talent for choosing able and talented CEOs who exhibit both a sense of innovation and continuity. What’s your secret?

It starts with Caterpillar’s leadership development philosophy of promoting from within. Caterpillar has never had an outside CEO or chairman in the history of our company; we’ve been public since 1929. Sometimes that brings great things, and sometimes that can bring an inward focus. But we’ve always done it that way, and I would say that CEO succession at Caterpillar is an outflow of the way we do succession planning throughout the year and over a long period of time.

What are some of the best practices you can share with us? 

We spend time throughout the year on succession planning, leading up to a session with the board in October. But the way it starts is from the bottom up. Every one of our officers sits down at least once a year with their management teams, and then as a group, and talks through all of their people and assesses their long-term potential. That’s an active process—a minimum of once a year. We follow a similar process in the executive office. And that process takes most of the year to work its way through. We just finished that this summer, and by the time we get to the board in October, we—the six of us in the executive office at Caterpillar—have a good understanding of the highest-potential candidates out of the top 3,000 positions within our company. And over a period of years we get to develop the people who are in these positions—whether they’re in China, Russia, the United States or anywhere—we prepare them to be senior leaders. Then we spend time mostly on our officer level, which would be about 35 people—who’s going to retire, what’s our succession plan for each of those jobs, who are our functional experts, who are the best high-performers to serve in that leadership role.

When does diversity enter the picture?

We talk a lot about developing diverse candidates to fill these roles at the officer level and across the board in all facets to ensure a diverse and inclusive leadership team, and we really work hard on it. We brought together a process that I think will help us down the road, but it’s a continuing challenge and one we do not let up on—and by that I mean developing and placing Asian leaders in Asia, European leaders in Europe, U.S. minorities and females for positions everywhere we do business.

Where did this commitment to succession and talent planning begin? 

I give a great deal of credit to our board for managing this over the years, for the most part very quietly. My predecessor, Jim Owens, is a great guy. I worked for him off and on for 15 years, and between Jim and our board, they devised a succession plan for me that resulted in my ascension to the CEO position that was very quiet, very orderly, and over a year’s period of time. Every one of our executive officers that was there before the transition is here today. We operate as a team, and I give the board and Jim great credit in making sure that was the case so that we did not hit The Wall Street Journal for things that a lot of companies go through on CEO and succession transition, which I think is very unhealthy for an organization. It essentially allowed me to hit the ground running.

What aspect involves you personally the most?

I’ll take my CEO hat off and cross the table as an outside board member of some experience—to make sure that when management is working on succession planning for the CEO, that it’s a much deeper process, something along the lines of what I just described. I don’t think enough companies really spend enough time on that. I think many companies do, but if you don’t start from the bottom up and work it all the way through, it’s going to be very difficult to do that at the CEO level as well. I think that’s where a lot of companies get into trouble. Certainly one where the candidate can come from within—if it works within that organization—and sometimes it doesn’t—can be healthy; sometimes change is needed.

How did the succession plan feel like when you took the reins? 

Switching gears a little bit to strategy. We’ve had a good CEO tradition at Caterpillar that the first few months or year of a new CEO is a time to think about strategy. No surprise—everyone probably does it that way. But in my succession, Jim provided me with six months to head the strategy group, which I did. He continued being CEO and chairman of the company and held off all the other things that come at a new CEO from day one, and I think that was great. Jim’s predecessor had done that when he came in as CEO; it was fabulous, and to the extent that you can get that done, it works, and it sure worked for us.

Was it a group effort?

We appointed a group of 16 to our strategy group, six of whom were in the executive office that I mentioned, our group presidents that report to me, and myself, and then 10 others from around the world—the most diverse group we had ever put together. We sat down in November of 2009 and wanted to be finished by May of 2010. We asked, “What do we want to do with our company?” We had fairly modest expectations to begin with, and as we sat down and looked at all of the things we were doing and needed to do, we quickly realized we needed to make some fairly deep cultural changes. Caterpillar has a culture that is very, very deep and very, very strong, but very hard to change. And while we did a lot of things very well—and always had—and were performing relatively well, we were just in the thick of the recession, which provided a great sense of urgency and a great burning platform to really attack the way we looked at what we were going to be when we grew up—this team. Our strategy-planning group met for about six months, two weeks a month, and really dissected the company. We hired two outside advisors, one a professional consulting firm we had worked with and knew us very well, and one from HR to help us on the culture change and where we drive the company. I would do this again, and if I went to another company, I would do it there because this process was really effective and top-notch.

The board weighted in as well I presume?

The other thing that helps get strategy right is to take what I call a board-level view. I firmly believe the words have to be direct and as plain-language as possible. If you can’t explain it at a board level that makes sense, you aren’t going to be able to explain it to your own people. That was very helpful to us, and that’s the lesson I learned out of that process. You’ve all been on both sides of the table of management and a board—you’ve got to put it in a way that members who meet every 60 days for a board meeting can get enough into it without too much detail and without being too high-level. And that’s really an art to get that right. When we wrapped up that strategy, we put it all on an 8 1/2- by-11 card. We’ve explained that now, for almost two years, what it is we want everybody to do. And one of the key communication pieces by management is communicate, communicate and communicate that strategy, whatever it is.

Succession planning meets strategic thinking. What was the result?

In our case, it’s back to the basics of Caterpillar: make greatquality products; get everyone to want your brand, to be associated with it because they love your brand; make sure it offers the lowest owning and operating costs; if you’re a contractor, make sure he or she has the lowest owning and operating costs he or she can get; and when it comes time to resell that product, make sure it has the highest resale value. And when it comes time for service, it happens instantly. We basically refurbished that strategy and realigned all kinds of things to do that. It’s no different than the strategy that whoever it was back in the ’40s and ’50s made for Caterpillar. It wasn’t all that far off from “back to the basics.” In fact, we talked about naming it that, but we didn’t.

The upshot was that change was in the air. What kind? 

We decided that the culture had to be changed. And we decided we were going to shock the culture. And one of the great cultural strengths of Caterpillar is it was a promote-from-within company. And one of the great cultural weaknesses it brought was a sense of job entitlement until retirement. And it had gotten more and more ingrained with time, so we said, in order to get everyone’s attention, we are going to realign the company. We formed business units—we already had business units, but we formed them at a higher level and were careful they were “in charge” of all levels, end to end. We put the P&L leader in the executive office, and we essentially reduced 20 percent of the officer ranks in one fell swoop. And that got everybody’s attention, because we hadn’t done that, ever. Once that group was in place, we replaced another 17 percent of the next level down, and that really emphasized we were serious. Those two single moves got everybody sitting up in their chair, and then we started talking about a key piece of our new strategy, which was accountability and personal ownership for results. That has really helped, and we communicated that.

Then we got into strategy implementation, and this is where we had more help from the board. I would say this led up to our acquisitions of last year—we have spent almost $11 billion. But that puts pressure on a board. And that was a big, big change for us, because we had not typically been an acquirer; the biggest deal we had ever done prior to that was for about one and a quarter billion for an engine company 13 years ago.

This led you to look at the business portfolio differently as well?

But part of what we did with our strategy was to identify key industries where our customers make a lot of money, where we think we can make a lot of money and add value, and where people appreciate the Cat brand and what we can bring to it, and that are growing. So we identified oil and gas, mining and rail, electric power and a couple of others, but the big three as key to our future long term. So our first moves with this new team last summer and fall were right in those sweet spots—our rail, mining and gas-engine acquisitions. And we committed to the board and our people that we were going to grow where it made sense with our strategy, and we really worked hard on that. As a result, when it came time to take these acquisitions to the board, they could connect the dots back to what we talked about, almost two years ago now, when we originally took them through our strategy build-up.

Your portfolio included the coal business which is under a great deal of scrutiny. How did you resolve that?

But having said that, the few key things—again, board-level communication— we tried to do all the way through. We were in the throes of the Bucyrus acquisition last fall, and our board, to their credit, put us through the paces: “Why do you think coal mining is going to be so good when everybody hates coal mining?” All we saw was everybody burning coal and electricity and so on. And it forced us to really dig in to coal mining and also what we’re going to have to do around clean coal. And that single piece to me more than paid for the board’s salaries for many years, because it forced us into deep thinking. We went back to customers, we went back to think tanks, we went back to NGOs to talk about coal, the whole thing. And that single question really helped us with this, because we understood now where coal mining was going, what we have to do to address this going forward and the risks that come from that. It’s also made us a believer in clean coal and helping to find ways to improve its use. So that’s just a one example where I thought our board was very helpful as we pushed through an $8.8 billion acquisition.

What is the benefit of a great board and how do they impact the business issues? 

Just a note about our board: we have, I think, one of the strongest and have had a reputation for a strong board for years. Six of our board members have been with us over 10 years, and we typically have long-standing, deep expertise on our board—not unlike what we do in our company—and we really work on that as well. It takes a while to get to know a company our size, with nearly 150,000 in our workforce. Like any global business, we’ve had ongoing challenges in certain areas. Our board helps us with those, and, in our case, I’m a big fan of that outside perspective coming in to help us.

If you have a strong, diverse board, and we do—we have a member from Mexico, the U.K., we have retired CEOs, active CEOs, just nobody close to our business—and if you listen carefully, you’ll get lots of input and won’t become internally focused. And I have found that’s very helpful. Of course, I’ve been associated with the audit committee of Caterpillar since I was CFO, so I’m a little partial to that one, but that one is the wake-up call you can get, and as an audit committee member you should give, because that’s really the most responsible place for financial reporting, integrity, values and, really, the core backbone of your company. So I had some good training in that for a long period of time, and that’s one that I view at the top. You really have to be sure when you assign audit committee members that they can really stand up and have the gravitas to get into it, especially at a big company like ours where things can get really complicated.

How has your board experience changed you as a leader?

A couple of things I’ll throw in that I’ve learned the last year and a half or so on leading the board, and we’ve kind of waded our way through this a little bit. We try to listen to what everybody likes to do—and I do this at Eli Lilly as well—and tell management what we like to hear and not hear on both sides of the table. But we’ve really stepped up our board attention at Caterpillar. Our process for how we deal with the board—their advance material, how we get them to our meetings, how we manage a meeting and so on— was kind of splintered at Caterpillar. So we immediately, under our general counsel, set up a very focused board group. I now have one person, the assistant general counsel, who I go to for everything about the board. And it’s his responsibility to make sure the advance material is complete. That has been a tremendous help to me as chairman of the board and CEO, because in the past we had three or four people helping, and now it’s—I would hope like everything else at Caterpillar—one accountable person for that. I think that’s important, and I think our board would tell you that’s helping them as well. That means we can focus on the things that are most important.

We’ve also gone to more private sessions, with the board and myself and with the board alone. And I think that’s important because typically at Caterpillar, we had invited, which I think is also very good and it needs to happen, the executive office to participate as liaison to the committees, the dinner and the board meeting with very little time of private discussion among the board. One of the pieces of feedback I got early on from the board was, “Let us have more time with you,” and, “Let us have more time by ourselves.”

That didn’t scare me a bit; in fact, it’s helped us. Now we start with an hour-long executive session with me before the board meeting, where I review what I’ve been doing, the challenges I’ve worried about, the things we’re thinking about, maybe tee up a couple of subjects that are going to be tough for the board meeting. Then at the end of the board meeting, I go in with the board for a few minutes; they get to shoot and pick, then I leave them alone, and then our presiding director will talk to me afterwards about anything that would have come out of that. I think that’s a great process—it’s essentially a Lilly process that they use as well—and we’ve had good feedback on that. Again, that was a change. It does compress the board session a bit, and you have to be crisp because the number of hours you have to get through the big stuff is short. It has helped the board to feel like, so far, they’re more tuned in and know what’s going on.