Plain Talk shares insights from Ken Iverson’s successful career as founder and CEO of Nucor Corporation, one of the largest steel companies in the US. Iverson believed in direct communication and leading through personal involvement rather than delegation.
The book outlines Iverson’s unconventional management philosophies that stressed responsibility, simplicity and teamwork. He focused on developing employees’ talents rather than exerting control. Iverson also advocated continual learning and questioned existing practices to drive innovation.
Readers learn how Iverson’s principles helped Nucor succeed against larger rivals and transform the steel industry. Plain Talk offers useful lessons for leadership, business strategy and driving change through empowering workers. Iverson provided a role model for hands-on leadership with high integrity.
The book gives thoughtful perspective on Iverson’s career and management approach in an engaging narrative style. Readers will find insights applicable to their own work through his emphasis on developing people and constant improvement.
In summary, Plain Talk profiles Ken Iverson’s maverick career and unconventional management philosophies that transformed the steel industry. Call to action: Continue reading to learn Iverson’s key principles for empowering employees and fostering responsibility, simplicity and continual learning in organizations.
Table of Contents
Entrepreneurship, Management, Leadership, Corporate Culture, Career Success, Business, Biography, Memoir, Strategy, Innovation, Motivation, Communication, Industry
Perhaps the highest praise for this refreshing little memoir is this: if certain other captains of industry had read Ken Iverson’s book when it was published in 1998 and heeded its advice, investors would have been spared billions in losses and a slew of corporate scandals would have been averted. Iverson, head of steel maker Nucor Corporation, injects much-needed common sense into the often-bureaucratic, hierarchical world of corporate boardrooms and corner offices. This persuasive text, written in the sort of clear, muscular prose you’d expect from a steel man, will make you want to give up your executive parking space and embrace an egalitarian corporate structure. getAbstract.com recommends this engaging work to managers who want to look at their jobs a new way.
- Nucor Corporation is a steel company that survived withering times without a layoff.
- Nucor Chairman Ken Iverson built the company by decentralizing decision making and flattening the corporate hierarchy.
- Nucor’s general managers aren’t micromanaged; crucial and costly decisions are theirs alone.
- Iverson believes that jets and limos, corner offices, executive dining rooms and special parking spots have no place in the corporate world.
- Such perks and status symbols only create resentment and petty competition.
- An egalitarian corporate structure boosts morale and fends off unions.
- In tough times, the CEO and other top company officials should take pay cuts before pondering a single layoff.
- Face-to-face contact with line workers is a powerful tool for any manager.
- Written employee surveys provide valuable feedback from workers.
- The CEO should offer to hear appeals from workers who feel they’ve been treated unfairly by their supervisors.
Introduction: How to go flat for soaring success
Plain Talk (1997) unveils the secrets behind a revolutionary approach to business management, where flat hierarchies and employee empowerment lead the charge. It’s a playbook for building a successful, innovative company that thrives on trust, transparency, and breaking the traditional corporate mold.
Imagine a world where the workplace isn’t just a place to toil endlessly but rather a place where every employee is a valued part of the bigger purpose. This belief was the nucleus of Nucor Steel’s business success, thanks to its CEO, Ken Iverson. His affinity was for a flat organizational structure in which employees could freely introduce and implement ideas and contribute to the company’s overall success.
Under Iverson’s leadership, Nucor grew by leaps and bounds while remaining profitable for over three decades. That’s no small feat in the competitive world of steel production. His secret? Flattening the traditional corporate hierarchy and building a trust-based, transparent, and highly inclusive company culture in which employees could contribute to the company as equal partners. In the 1960s, when the top-down hierarchy was the status quo, Iverson’s insistence that no one should blindly follow orders was a radical breath of fresh air.
In this summary to his book Plain Talk, you’ll discover Iverson’s best lessons from his years at Nucor – from leading with trust and transparency to embracing risk and failure for consistent growth.
Ready to revolutionize your leadership and business approaches the Iverson way?
Success begins with trust and transparency
When we think of leadership, we often conjure images of a solitary figure making all the big calls. However, Iverson’s role as Nucor’s CEO was marked by a collaborative spirit in which open communication was the cornerstone. His affinity for this approach was about more than just breaking down barriers; at its heart, it was about building trust and transparency.
At Nucor, this ongoing quest was underscored by three key aspects: open communication, painsharing, and minimized cynicism.
From day one, Nucor was powered by a pervasive commitment to open, two-way communication. Iverson believed that information would be passed down the ranks; leaders must actively listen to employees, value their input, and integrate feedback into decision-making processes. This open-door, bottom-up policy fostered strong trust and transparency – essential ingredients for a thriving workplace.
Now, Iverson knew that trust and transparency were mere platitudes without the practice of “painsharing.” In challenging economic times, instead of laying off employees, the company would rely on a unique strategy in which everyone, from top executives to frontline workers, shared the economic impact. This practice meant that top management took substantial pay cuts while efforts were made to protect the salaries of lower-level employees. More than a financial decision, this approach was ultimately a powerful gesture of solidarity, demonstrating that all levels of the organization were united in times of success and hardship. And obviously, this mindset could only have been achieved with a commitment to open communication.
Nucor’s generally inclusive attitude naturally kept workplace cynicism at bay. By transparently involving employees in the company’s highs and lows, Nucor fostered a culture in which cynicism gave way to a shared purpose. Employees understood that their contributions were valued and their well-being was prioritized. It’s no wonder that their commitment to the company’s long-term goals was historically robust.
In short, Nucor wasn’t solely measured by the bottom line – thanks to Iverson’s belief in trust and transparency. Under his wing, the company could maintain a culture in which employees were genuinely engaged, felt a sense of belonging, and were motivated to contribute to a cause greater than themselves.
Ultimately, this collaborative spirit defined Nucor, setting the stage for a corporate culture with minimal hierarchy. We’ll talk about that next.
Less hierarchy, more culture
As a leader who loved the flat organizational structure, Iverson turned the typical corporate hierarchy on its head during his time at Nucor. This feature was a big deal because, in most large corporations, layers of management can create a complex labyrinth through which ideas and decisions have to struggle.
Imagine always being just a few steps away from the top leader, no matter where you stand on the corporate ladder. That was the norm for Nucor employees. With just four management layers in a billion-dollar business – chairman or president, general managers, department managers and supervisors or professionals – Nucor showed that, by reducing red tape, less can be more. Unlike in many large corporations with up to 12 layers of management, where ideas can get lost in translation, Nucor’s structure ensured clarity and efficiency, proving that reducing hierarchy can significantly enhance corporate culture.
Iverson also bucked the trend of the “span of control” theory – the old-school belief that there is a limit to the number of people a manager can handle under them. At Nucor, he allowed some supervisors to manage larger teams than what was traditionally considered feasible. This approach was based on a fundamental trust in the capabilities and autonomy of the employees. By trusting in their abilities, Iverson and his supervisors believed that employees could work effectively without needing close supervision or micro-management. This trust created a leaner management structure, reducing layers of hierarchy and fostering a more direct and efficient communication channel within the organization. There were no tangled webs or bureaucratic delays – just straight talk and quick decisions, with everyone looped in.
Now, picture a drastic contrast to Nucor: a company bogged down by massive hierarchy. In such an environment, original thought often gets lost or warped beyond recognition. Iverson compared this phenomenon to salmon swimming upstream – many great ideas just don’t make it. What a waste! It’s no wonder he didn’t just want to build better suggestion boxes; he always wanted to remove as many structural obstacles as possible. That way, ideas would be free to flow and flourish.
If you think about it, Iverson’s approach to flattening the hierarchy was a cultural revolution. It created a space where employees felt they had a direct line to those who called the shots. In the end, their ideas and contributions genuinely mattered.
With all this talk about minimal hierarchy, we’re arriving at our next point: decentralization. If flattening the hierarchy at Nucor was about opening lines of communication, decentralization was about putting the power of decision-making right where it needed to be, and trusting that the best decisions would come from those closest to the action. Let’s explore how this strategy is best played out.
Maintaining operational equilibrium with instinct
The tug-of-war between decentralization and centralization is a constant in the business world. Decentralization, in which decision-making is distributed among various levels of the organization, and centralization, in which decisions are made primarily at the top, represent two ends of the operational spectrum.
Iverson had an evident penchant for decentralization, seeing it as a vital approach for Nucor’s diverse markets and needs. However, he also recognized that balancing decentralized autonomy with some centralized oversight was crucial.
Naturally, Nucor represented a fascinating case of balance between the two points.
The company’s decentralized approach was not just a practice but a philosophy. Iverson saw value in giving managers and employees significant autonomy – and Nucor’s operational model contrasted sharply with the centralized models of giants like Wal-Mart. To Iverson, decentralization wasn’t a “better” model – it was simply the one that better suited the company’s unique needs. It was also, he believed, the key to unlocking potential at the local level.
But Iverson was no purist. He understood that businesses like Wal-Mart thrived on a centralized approach to benefit from uniformity and consistency. In Iverson’s view, the choice to decentralize or centralize operations depended on a company’s top priority at a given time, which can change.
In Nucor’s dynamic environment, striking the right balance between decentralization and centralized guidance hinged on a leader’s instinct. Iverson was a master at this. For one, he granted plant managers significant autonomy, allowing them to adapt operations to local needs, effectively making each plant operate almost like an independent business. Yet, for major strategic decisions like investing in new technologies, Iverson retained centralized control to ensure alignment with Nucor’s overall vision.
Another way Iverson maintained balance was through regular general managers’ meetings. These sessions weren’t just administrative; they were dynamic forums for sharing insights and aligning on company-wide strategies. Here, Iverson harmonized decentralized inputs with a unified central strategy, ensuring that despite Nucor’s decentralized approach, there remained a cohesive direction and focus on the company’s overarching objectives.
Ultimately, Iverson’s instinctual leadership in balancing decentralized and centralized approaches allowed Nucor to be adaptable enough to meet evolving business needs. This sense of flexibility brings us to our next focus: how Nucor empowered what Iverson termed “innovative streaks” for consistent business success.
Why smallness matters in a big world
In a business world often obsessed with the idea that bigger is better, Nucor carved out a path that celebrated smallness. This concept might sound counterintuitive in an era of mega-corporations, but it fueled the company’s innovative spirit and set it apart in the hyper-competitive steel industry.
At the heart of Nucor’s philosophy was the understanding that smallness could coexist with, and even drive, a large corporation’s success. The idea has nothing to do with physical size and everything to do with the agility, spirit, and openness often found in smaller companies.
Nucor debunked the myth that scale alone equates to superiority in three ways: its organizational structure, location and talent choices, and innovative streaks.
Remember how Nucor operated with just four layers of management? The company did so while hitting an average of approximately $4 billion in annual revenues. This approach went above keeping the company’s hierarchy flat; it was about preserving a culture in which ideas could flow freely and decisions could be made swiftly because the workforce felt more connected and engaged. Nucor’s simplicity contrasted starkly with the convoluted structures of many large corporations, in which layers of bureaucracy often slow down innovation and decision-making.
Nucor’s belief in unassuming smallness had to do with its location and talent. Preferring small towns over big cities, the company would tap into these communities’ rich talent pools and strong work ethic. This choice was not just a logistical or economic one; it reflected a belief in the virtues embedded within rural America, such as self-reliance, pragmatism, and community. These values translated into an inventive, resilient workforce deeply invested in Nucor’s achievements. When they won, the company won.
Furthermore, Nucor’s commitment to smallness also empowered its approach to innovation. At the company, experimenting, risk-taking, and learning from failure were encouraged by default instead of on a case-by-case basis. This culture of innovation wasn’t top-down; it was grassroots, driven by employees who felt empowered and valued, much like in a smaller company in which every individual’s contribution can have a significant impact.
In embracing smallness, Nucor showed that being large doesn’t mean you have to lose the qualities that often make small businesses dynamic and successful. You can aim big without losing the heart and soul of being small. By staying humble, learning from risk and failure becomes easier. In the next section, you’ll learn what that means.
Learning from risk and failure
In the business world, where playing it safe is often the default, Nucor’s approach to risk and failure painted a picture of bold innovation and constant learning. Let’s delve into how this mindset wasn’t just a part of their strategy, but the very essence of their success.
First, let’s address risk-taking.
Under Iverson’s watch, Nucor wasn’t just another player in the steel industry; it was a trailblazer, unafraid to tread paths less traveled. Consider how the company once built a safe-to-use pipe machine on a shoestring budget. It was a risky endeavor, since quality and cost efficiency seldom go hand in hand. But with its ingenuity and resourcefulness, backed by an efficient, flat organizational structure, Nucor was able to walk the tightrope between the two and receive recognition as a reliable stakeholder.
Now, about failure – why did Iverson love it so much, even when others were quick to shy away from it?
Simple: to Iverson, failure wasn’t a setback. He perceived it as a sign of stepping back from present scenarios and contemplating new paths and possibilities. This perspective was key in creating Nucor’s culture, in which the fear of failure didn’t stifle innovation. Of course, Iverson knew that one shouldn’t mindlessly tolerate risk-taking, which is where calculated risks come into play. He believed that a successful company was always ready for the highs and lows and would see potential for growth in every challenge encountered.
Consider Nucor’s leap into thin-slab casting as an example. Investing in unproven technology was a gamble that could have gone either way. But Iverson and his team measured the risks against the potential rewards. Their deep understanding of the market and their strengths turned this gamble into a well-calculated move that eventually redefined Nucor’s position in the industry. The rest is history.
At heart, Iverson’s position on risk and failure underscores the value of collective learning and accountability. When things didn’t go as expected, the focus at Nucor wasn’t on pointing fingers or knee-jerk decisions, but on unraveling the lessons hidden in these experiences. Because he didn’t demonize risk and failure, Iverson could maintain team morale and build upon Nucor’s reservoir of wisdom, which forms the backbone of his company’s legacy today.
Common Sense Management
Steel maker Nucor is a throwback to the United States’ old economy, yet it’s a company that has become almost revolutionary in American business simply by sticking to common sense values. Nucor offers a tangle of surprising contradictions. Although its 7,000 workers are compensated generously by industry standards, Nucor boasts labor costs well below those of its rivals. Nucor’s hourly wages and salaries are much less than competitors offer and a big chunk of employees’ compensation comes from performance-based bonuses. Nucor is a Fortune 500 company with billions in sales, but it has only 22 employees at its corporate headquarters and a mere four layers of management between the chief executive officer and its line workers.
“These pages hold no pat leadership formulas, no intricate management models. In the rush of the real world, I’ve rarely found time for such things.”
Nucor has been a consistently profitable technological innovator, although it has neither a research and development division nor a corporate engineering department. While it operates in a tired, shrinking industry that has laid off thousands of people in recent decades, Nucor has never downsized an employee or closed a plant for lack of work. This last paradox is at the core of Nucor’s corporate culture. The company is run with a long-term view, one that takes into account the basic humanity of its workers and that realizes treating workers as equals will boost profits over the long haul.
“We run Nucor first and foremost to ensure that, a decade or two from now, there will still be a place for our children and grandchildren to work without being laid off. That is our higher cause.”
Ken Iverson joined Nucor (then the Nuclear Corporation of America) as a vice president in 1962. Three years later, when the company faced failure, he was promoted to president. Iverson turned the company around and then he shepherded it through a long period of growth. Among his basic rules is “painsharing.” Rather than laying off workers in tough years, Nucor makes ends meet by cutting salaries, starting at the top. Pay cuts are sacrilege to many CEOs, no matter how poorly their companies perform. Even in the face of plunging stock prices and mounting losses, many CEOs feel they have a right to double-digit raises.
“Today’s trend is still to compensate top management with huge sums that increase every year and bear no relation to how well or poorly the company and its workers are doing.”
By contrast, during the recession of the early 1980s Nucor’s department heads took 40% annual pay cuts. General managers and other executives’ compensation dropped 50-60%. And Iverson himself took a massive pay cut, from $450,000 to $110,000. That made Iverson the lowest-paid CEO on the Fortune 500. If you’re building a company for the long haul, Iverson reasons, such painsharing only makes sense. For starters, workers will sacrifice for a boss whom they know is also feeling the pinch. Taking the fundamentally decent step of painsharing is the surest way to fight the cynicism so pervasive in the American workplace. While Iverson eschews corporate buzzwords, he does follow these four rules of running a company:
- Workers are paid based on their productivity.
- Workers must know that if they do their jobs today, they’ll still have jobs tomorrow.
- Workers are treated fairly.
- Workers have a clear recourse when they feel they’re treated unfairly.
“The people at the top of the corporate hierarchy grant themselves privilege after privilege, flaunt those privileges before the men and women who do the real work, then wonder why employees are unmoved by management’s invocations to cut costs and boost profitability.”
Those rules fly in the face of the more typical principles of business, which say that executives get paid first, the second priority focuses on the short-term financial results watched by shareholders,and employees’ job security finishes dead last.
Managing by Walking Around
That old saw about managing by walking around has a lot of merit. If you regularly chat with your people, you’ll know what’s going on in your plant. And when you call the same people into your office because you need some frank feedback, they’ll be more likely to give it. Moreover, a manager’s authority comes from his people. An aloof manager loses his authority, while one who’s approachable gains authority. Iverson hired one seemingly brilliant manager who immediately ran afoul of this tenet of Nucor’s philosophy. The promising hire began to add layers of management between himself and his line workers. He didn’t last long.
“Managers don’t need or deserve special treatment. We’re not more important than other employees.”
If you’re walking around, you’re more likely to spot problems and arrive at amicable solutions. Iverson recalls what happened when he said that the photos of nude women decorating the work area at one plant had to come down, lest they give the wrong impression to important visitors from Pratt & Whitney. The workers vehemently argued that the photos had always been there. But when Iverson explained his concerns, the workers agreed to move the photos to their locker room, where visitors wouldn’t see them. Iverson agreed to the compromise.
“Distance yourself from your people and you distance yourself from your base of authority.”
The informal chats you have while walking around the plant shouldn’t be the only way you solicit feedback, however. Iverson believes in regular, formal surveys. Because they’re anonymous and closely tracked, surveys are a valuable way to discern worker sentiment. For a long time, Iverson opposed drug testing workers, feeling it sent the message that the company didn’t trust them. But when more than 70% of employees said in a survey that they wanted drug testing, largely to improve their own safety, Iverson instituted the practice. When employees said they disliked time clocks, Iverson agreed to remove the devices from his plants. Time clocks offered no information that wasn’t obvious to supervisors and other workers. Be open about survey findings. Nucor devotes an issue of its quarterly newsletter to the results, and the company takes care not to be defensive in response to employee criticisms.
Making Managers Accountable
Iverson takes management clichés about delegation and empowerment seriously. The general managers who run Nucor’s divisions make decisions and are accountable for them. For example, a general manager in South Carolina wanted to expand his plant by installing an unusual type of furnace. Iverson gave him permission, even though the furnaces cost $10 million and other people had made some strong arguments against them. The furnaces proved problematic, and when that general manager was replaced (for reasons unrelated to that machinery), his successor argued for ripping out the new furnaces and replacing them with more conventional equipment. Again, Iverson granted permission. His rule is not to second-guess managers but to give them clear expectations to meet. General managers must achieve a 25% return on the assets under their control, and they must do so ethically. It’s up to the individual executives to decide how to achieve the goal.
“Delegation without information is suicide.”
That’s not to say that Nucor’s managers have free rein. The CEO closely tracks important data. Although no lengthy reports are required, general managers must report crucial statistics weekly, including orders, production, backlog, inventory and shipments. The beauty of this reporting system is that it shows only those numbers that are really necessary. Too many managers allow themselves to be inundated with so much information that the data are meaningless. Iverson once let subordinates pile reams of computer printouts on his desk. Then he realized that the piles of paper offered little useful data. To avoid the trap of too much information, ask your people only for very specific numbers that show results. You want objective information, not the superfluous subjective interpretation of the numbers.
“Too much information puts you in the same position as too little information â€” you don’t know what’s going on.”
Iverson freely acknowledges that his decentralized approach to management isn’t always the right answer. McDonald’s and Wal-Mart run on highly centralized business models. Their high level of central control is warranted by their businesses, which rely on uniformity among thousands of stores. However, Nucor general managers sell to diverse markets and operate in varying conditions. When you need flexibility and innovation, decentralization can work wonders.
Say Goodbye to the Corner Office
Along with Nucor’s decentralized philosophy comes a flattening of the typical corporate hierarchy. Executives don’t fly on corporate jets, ride in company limos or dine in an executive cafeteria. The firm has no special health plan for executives. Top managers don’t even get special parking spots near the entrance to the plant. All of those baubles serve only to confuse the company’s mission and to reinforce an “us versus them” mentality. When managers constantly flaunt their perks in front of employees, they can expect a chilly reception when they urge those same employees to make sacrifices to boost revenues and cut costs. What’s more, corporate status symbols often become an end in themselves, leading people to jockey for the best parking spots or fancy offices when they should worry about much more significant goals.
“Workers’ short-term interests tend to run a distant third behind those of shareholders and executives.”
In his battle against hierarchy, Iverson targeted — among other things — the color-coded hard hats worn in Nucor plants. Line workers wore one color, supervisors another. Visiting bigwigs from headquarters wore gold hard hats to distinguish their spot atop the pecking order. Without consulting anyone, Iverson decreed that all Nucor employees would wear green hard hats, while visitors would wear white hard hats. Iverson was flooded with calls from supervisors who considered their special hard hats an important status symbol. Iverson argued that their status comes from their accomplishments and behavior, not from the color of their hats. Still, he did have to back down on one part of his decree: when a machine broke, workers had to be able to spot maintenance workers easily, so they later were assigned yellow hats.
An Egalitarian Structure
In perhaps a more important move against corporate hierarchy, Iverson organized Nucor to have only four layers of management: president, general managers, department managers and supervisors. Many Fortune 500 concerns have a dozen layers. This compressed structure has some practical advantages, particularly when it comes to communication. An order from the boss is less likely to be misconstrued when it has to be relayed through fewer layers of bureaucracy. The egalitarian structure has also left workers with little appetite for unionization. When union organizers show up at a Nucor plant, they’re usually ignored or even run off by the workers themselves. Why do they need a union when they feel their concerns are heard and they’re treated fairly?
“Complaining is a waste of time. In the end, you have to choose your master â€” the investor or the speculator.”
Of course, that means Nucor must be authentic and treat its workers fairly. Iverson encourages workers to come to him when they have disputes with their bosses. In one case, a worker was fired for leaving the factory without telling anyone. When Iverson learned that the man had rushed to the hospital to be with an injured child, he rescinded the firing. In another case, a young supervisor was fired after he lied about numbers to impress the bosses who had promoted him. But after the man drove hundreds of miles to apologize to Iverson personally, he again relented. On the other hand, when workers who fail drug tests call Iverson to beg for their jobs, he tells them there’s nothing he can do. Their now former coworkers demand a drug-free workplace. Keeping open lines communication with workers and offering an appeal process in case of disputes are sure ways to boost employee morale.
“Decentralization isn’t ’good.’ Centralization isn’t ’bad.’ Each is a sound option under the right circumstances.”
Another surefire morale booster: use money to motivate employees. In most jobs, an employee makes the same salary whether he works hard, slacks off or calls in sick. Nucor structures pay to motivate workers. Base pay is below industry averages, but it’s only part of what a Nucor worker makes. Bonuses account for the rest. Say a team of 25 workers is melting scrap metal and recasting it. To make a bonus for the week, the group might have to reach a goal of producing 50 tons an hour, with a bonus of 4% of base pay for each ton above that goal. If the group averages 100 tons an hour, workers will get a 200% bonus (50 tons over the goal times 4%) in the following week’s paycheck. The goals often are readily attainable, because the company has found that the bonuses are a powerful motivator.
“’Painsharing’ has helped us get through the tough times without ever laying off a single employee or closing a single facility for lack of work, even when the industry overall was shedding thousands of jobs.”
By quickly rewarding workers and by tying pay to a team’s productivity, Nucor motivates its employees to be the most productive and efficient workers in the industry.
Nucor’s journey is a testament to transformative leadership and a blueprint for future-focused, people-centric success. His enduring lessons – on trust-based and transparent leadership, streamlined hierarchy, the virtues of smallness, and growing with risk and failure – are more relevant than ever in today’s fast-evolving business landscape. When in doubt and needing inspiration for operational optimization, just take a leaf from Iverson’s book and go as flat as possible.
About the Authors
Nucor Chairman Ken Iverson earned engineering degrees from Cornell and Purdue. He joined Nuclear Corp. of America in 1962. When it faced bankruptcy in 1965, the company’s board promoted him to president. The company, which changed its name to Nucor, became the nation’s third-largest steel maker. Iverson has served on the boards of Wal-Mart and Wachovia Corporation. Tom Varian is a principal at Strategic Communications Services in North Carolina.