A. Verona Dorch | Crain's Connecticut

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

A. Verona Dorch

Background:  

Peabody Energy is the world's largest private-sector coal company. Based in St. Louis, the company operates mines in the U.S. and Australia that supply customers in roughly 25 countries across six continents.

The Mistake:

Misunderstanding the scope of a major project.

I was working for a company in Pennsylvania and someone who was running the compliance function left the organization. I had been with the company for two or three years, and compliance there was seen more as something you have to deal with if there is a problem or investigation. From my understanding, compliance could become a way of life and become part of the culture and values of the company. If it isn't embedded in the day-to-day life of the business, then those are the types of companies that sometimes get into trouble. So I asked to take responsibility for compliance and try to work to build it into a world-class function.

As I made the pitch to my then-boss, who was the general counsel, I thought this was something I could elevate, fix and change within a six-month to one-year time period. As I started to get into it and partner with one of our external advisors who helped build compliance functions before, I realized pretty quickly it was a two- to three-year project.

I think the tough piece was having to go back to my boss and help him understand the timing suggestion was off, and the process required and some costs hadn’t been factored in up front. When I took on this task, I should have first made sure I understood what the overall cost of the project would be, what the overall timing of the project was going to be, what was going to be required from a man-hour standpoint in terms of involving other people and that it was going to be an iterative process that was going to mean work for the executive-level team and even the board given that compliance is a board-level topic.

I also recognize I’m not the expert on all things.

The Lesson:

Ultimately, the planning got to the right place. And I had a very understanding boss who supported me and a CEO who provided the funds to set up the structures to run the project. But I think, in retrospect, that I really should have had a lot of that information mapped out in advance.

The experience changed the way I approached things. One change is that, even if I look and see that something isn’t up to its potential, I don’t presume that I know enough about why it isn’t there or exactly how to fix it. I first step back to make sure I’ve got enough information about what the real problem is. I also recognize I’m not the expert on all things. So, if there is someone else who has done something successfully, I’m not afraid to go ask that person. I’m not afraid to reach out to other companies and ask, “Have you faced similar issues and how have you dealt with those issues?”

Before I’m making a pitch on how to resolve an issue, I’m armed with the necessary information. So it’s more of a project management approach that looks at everything including the cost and the process throughout to be able to measure milestones. I am able to share with others whether the project is on time or on cost. I think that also helps the people engaged in the project because they’re having the comfort of knowing whether or not they’re making progress.

And, from a leadership standpoint, providing that leadership and guidance is important. I now make sure there’s a lot more planning and mapping of process before beginning. Things don’t always run smoothly, but it does make it easier to see what success looks like.

Peabody Energy is on Twitter at @peabodyenergy.

Photo courtesy of Peabody Energy.

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