A productivity gold mine is hidden within our country's people. If America’s unproductive and uninspired workers could be given hope, could be empowered to contribute beyond the ordinary, beyond the constraints of their “jobs", the productivity transformation within our country could be incredible. The challenge of business leadership today is to create belief and then capitalize on that belief. It is business leadership’s responsibility to inspire and motivate employees to perform beyond mere survival -- beyond competitiveness. -0-
Will Rogers once said of Calvin Coolidge, our laconic 30th president, that “he didn’t say much, and when he did he didn’t say much.” The truth is that Silent Cal didn’t need many words to express his simple philosophy. The purpose of government, he believed, was to improve the environment “within which business could increase profits and investment, raise wages, and provide better goods and services at the lowest possible price.” In the Coolidge vision, government created the environment for success, while business went about the business of serving itself and society. “Labor” wasn’t much of a concern in the burgeoning Twenties.
Today, business can no longer afford to take its people for granted. Business not only must create its own success environment but must also challenge and encourage its people to succeed. Because of both a diminishing labor pool and the increased premium placed on human intelligence in a vastly more competitive and dynamic marketplace, business must intentionally enlist its people to help make success possible -- while continuing to meet the constantly changing needs of its customers, suppliers, and communities. The demand today -- as suggested more than sixty years ago by Calvin Coolidge -- is for high quality, low cost products and services. But it’s not as easy to compete today as it was back then.
During the 1920s, America’s global star was on the rise, and it would be, for the most part, for the next fifty years. Progress and America were inextricably entwined. All that was required, especially in the heady days following World War II, was patience, a reasonable amount of capital, a beehive full of willing workers, a ready market, and a government that -- at least -- didn’t get in the way. Vision wasn’t necessary, because nobody really needed to see very far into the future. Tomorrow’s success, if the tone of the times was any indicator, could be assumed without much risk.
The main ingredient of success in the 1950s was capacity. Demand could safely be taken for granted. It was stuck on autopilot -- and the direction was almost straight up! The economy ran full speed ahead, as a resurgent consumer society clamored for new houses, cars, and consumer goods, things that largely had been unavailable during the War and were unaffordable during the Depression. Prosperity came easily, perhaps too easily. It seemed as if American business could fall over its own feet and still make it big. But our easy-won success made us fat, indolent, and complacent. Employees wanted to work less and be paid more. Employers wanted to pay less and get people to work more.
This “management vs. labor” thinking, together with the declining quality of our high school graduates (which, along with teacher pay, reflects the value our society places on its human capital), has helped buy us today’s decreasing standard of living and has put our ability to compete globally at risk. For far too long, management’s approach was to pay labor as little as possible and do little to retain employees if they clamored for a raise -- after all, there was an endless supply of people out there willing to work, wasn’t there? One measure of that failed human resource strategy is that real indexed gross earnings per American worker were lower in 1986 than they were in 1962, according to Jackson Grayson, Jr. and Carla O’Dell in American Business: A Two-Minute Warning. At the same time, not surprisingly, our domestic productivity rate has slowed. In all important measures, America’s productivity rate now is less than that of Germany, France, Canada, Norway, The Netherlands, and even the U.K. Of thirteen industrialized nations, the U.S. ranks dead last in productivity growth over the thirteen years between 1973 and 1986. During the same period, Japan’s rate of productivity increased six times faster than ours. As a percentage of GNP, we spend less on civilian R&D than Germany or Japan. Japan graduates more than twice as many engineers annually than we do. Our public educational system, meanwhile, is producing crops of cultural and functional illiterates. Average SAT scores are lower now than they were when the Soviets shot up their Sputnik and shot down our egos. Although America finally is waking up to the critical need for knowledge workers, it may take educational reform as much as a decade to catch supply up to need.
A New Order.
Meanwhile, we are awakening from our complacent slumber to find our country half awash in a fast-paced and rapidly changing global marketplace competing against hungry economic up-and-comers, many of whom have adopted our technological, quality management, and marketing ideas and turned them into high-powered productivity weapons -- especially the Pacific Rim countries. New coverage of the rapidly crumbling socialist system and the emerging foundations of a new Europe attests to increasing international competition as more and more of the world’s peoples discover the prospects of capitalism. The globe is becoming one vast marketplace -- for customers and suppliers. Domestically and worldwide, customers are giving their business to whomever gives them the most quality for the least money, despite country of origin. “Made in America” is no longer an automatic entrée to the consumer’s business, although ironically, “Made in Japan” often is. Today, perception -- image -- does seem to be nine-tenths of truth. There is no more “business as usual.”
But even as a new economic order unfolds around us (and often without us), some U.S. companies blithely continue to eat their seed corn, sacrificing long-term gain on the altar of short-term earnings. And what does the public hear about on the nightly news? Financial performance (do we measure what’s most important?). Or the latest financial fiasco, in which some politician, S&L president, or investment banker slips it to the rest of us. Is it any wonder that the American people all too readily subscribe to the stereotypical image of business and its Wall Street partners as profiteers?
And what provides the backdrop for this ceaseless business news numbers game? The impression that America can’t compete (fostered by the popular news media) and what appears to be the sale and dismemberment of many of our bedrock corporations, along with their venerable American brand names. In the eyes of our nation and its workers, largely successful companies are leveraged by debt and broken up in the name of stockholder value, or bought outright by a foreign owner -- often, it seems, by the Japanese. The result of this negative imagery? Public and employee confusion. The greater value of these business transactions and any subsequent successes -- an LBO that proves beneficial, for example -- are more often than not lost to public view, simply because success isn’t as newsworthy as failure. Instead, the public sees mega-buck sleight of hand and people treated like pawns in a multi-billion dollar game of Monopoly. Our much touted “leanness and meanness” is perceived to come at the expense of someone or something -- the endlessly expendable American worker, or the overburdened environment. Unfortunately, this impression often reinforces the already grim movie and TV sitcom image of the businessman as anti-hero.
We need a new American Vision, a strong, positive and competitive vision -- and the irony is that it may finally fall to business to create one!
The Business Leadership Mandate.
Marjorie Kelly, writing in the cover article for Utne Reader (Jan/Feb 1989), suggests (even while chastising industry for its rape of native peoples, its robber baron and child labor era and more recent environmental pillage) that “business might be the last best hope of humanity.” Apparently all else has failed, her reasoning, seems to go, so why not give business a shot?
Kelly reports evidence that “a new life-affirming paradigm is emerging for business. It has to do, in short, with making this place a better world -- using business as a tool. It is a shift from the inhuman to the human. The new paradigm,” she concludes, “has to do with the respect for human resources in business, and the acknowledgment that workers aren’t obedient automatons but team players … demanding jobs with substance and meaning.” Short of some calamity to kick-start our national resolve, it may simply be up to America’s business leaders to inspire and motivate this country beyond mere survival -- beyond competitiveness.
Jackson and O’Dell suggest that “competitive” means keeping the economic leadership of the world while maintaining a rising standard of living. After all, we still want to be able to afford to buy the goods we make. A small mid-course correction won’t do. We need a major change in thinking. As operatic producer Larry Kelly once said, “Do it big, or stay in bed.”
So how do you do it big? How do you encourage the human enterprise, ingenuity, and incentive that lubricates our capitalistic engine so well without drying up the profits that sustain it? By creating, confirming, and communicating deeply compelling reasons for our people to participate in the life and progress of our businesses while intentionally creating the environment that enables them to do so.
A New Management Leadership Vision.
It is increasingly becoming clear that our present and future competitive edge lies within our organizations. The challenge of today’s business leadership is to increase the productivity of our human resources, to give employees a new vision of themselves and their potential, to maximize the contributions of the people who work in our factories and stores, in our offices, and across our landscape.
While it is, indeed, incumbent on today’s corporate leaders to protect their investment, the moral incumbency of corporate stewardship also must be considered: not only the highest but the wisest use of our human potential. It seems ludicrous to think otherwise as our labor pool diminishes in both quality and quantity. We must make more effective use -- and build the loyalty -- of our existing human resources. A productivity gold mine is hidden within our people, a vast, underdeveloped, undervalued, ingenious energy resource whose talents, skills, innovation, energy, and commitment are available for the asking.
An Environment for Growth.
Most people don’t want to “work.” They want to contribute; they want to be part of something. Without a sense of accomplishment and hope, human beings mark time. Unfortunately, for many American employees, work life has nothing do with “real” life. That begins after five o’clock, and it shows. Who hasn’t been the unwilling victim of tired, bored, and indifferent retail workers with a bad attitude, for whom customers are little more than an inconvenience? If America’s unproductive and uninspired workers -- including the students in our schools -- could be given hope, could be empowered to contribute beyond the ordinary, beyond the constraints of their “jobs,” the productivity transformation within our country could be incredible.
Chip R. Bell and Rom Zemke, writing in Personnel Journal (Do Service Procedures Tie Employee’s Hands, September, 1988), cite a fast food worker who decided, on her own, to give a customer free French fries because he had to wait too long. She was free to make that decision; she had been empowered with what Bell and Zemka call “service wisdom.” To empower people is to release them from the bondage of doing it by the book, to grant them the freedom (and the responsibility) not only to perform their jobs well, but also to give their best. Empowerment acknowledges people’s willingness and ability to contribute and invests them in shared purpose.
The challenge of business leadership today is to grant people permission to participate, to show them how to participate, and then to convince them it’s acceptable for them to take part. This author is convinced, after many years of interviewing employees on behalf of management, that not only do most workers comprehend (and appreciate) broad strategic perspective, they often have solutions to tactical problems that can impact the bottom line.
Kodak provides a great example. A division manager empowered film manufacturing workers to make decisions about their work. Not only did quality and productivity improve -- rather dramatically, but there was also an immediate payoff: the unit came in under instead of over budget. From the factory floor to the executive assistant, there is a wealth of potential waiting to be tapped, but people need to feel safe before they will open up what one enlightened senior manager called “their beautiful minds.” A critical caveat: if you fail to follow through on your promises and don’t acknowledge people’s contributions, credibility can quickly turn to dust. Trust is excruciatingly difficult to rebuild.
Leadership must create an environment within which the individual is encouraged to contribute, must inspire him or her to add value in a meaningful way, must create and maintain an environment within which the individual is expected to grow personally. Leadership must connect people to the dream, to the vision that directs them and the values that give their mission meaning, must provide something to believe in and work for. Leadership must not only answer the question, “Who are we, and where are we going?” but also “Why?” Without reason, people perish. And people perish on the job most often because they feel there is nothing worthwhile about what they do.
The thoughts of Professor Albert Wachtel of Pitzer College (Claremont, California) in a recent syndicated newspaper article about the elevating effect of a liberal arts education, apply equally well to what he called “an undivided person, one for whom work is a form of recreation and leisure, a form of productive openness. For such people,” he wrote, “the workday is part of the pleasure and challenge of living. They wear no dour masks for Mondays, because they find work, like leisure, to be a fulfilling aspect of their lives, a part funded by the rewards of productive engagement.”
There may be no better, cheaper, more immediate, and more productive way to “increase profits and investment, raise wages, and provide better goods and services at the lowest possible price,” than to motivate America’s employees -- or school children -- to inspired participation and performance. The transformation of human inventory into human capital may not only be the “right thing to do,” but the most realistic way to drop a dollar’s worth of difference to the bottom line for a dime’s worth of investment. It may not only be our country’s best investment, but our country’s “last best hope.”
A Lifting Purpose.
An inspired leader needs inspired followers. As Adam Smith suggested over 200 years ago, it is the participation of individuals working in their own and the collective self-interest that makes capitalism work so well. At its best, capitalism creates personal freedom as well as profits and seems to work best for both people and businesses when there is a comfortable convergence of personal and business goals. What gives meaning to forging tools or making underwear? Realization that the collective purpose -- beyond the products made or services rendered -- is worthwhile. Herbert Hoover called it a “lifting purpose.” As Harvey Cox, Professor of Divinity at Harvard notes, “All human beings have an innate need to have a story to live by.”
The lifting purpose at Apple Computer was clear both to employees and prospective customers almost from the very beginning: “The Power To Be Your Best.” The vision of Apple founders Jobs and Wozniak transformed how people related to computers. Their dream to make the personal computer accessible to the average Joe was shared with Apple people -- in fact, their vision bordered on a corporate religion. It told employees where the company was going and why, inspired them to take part and then guided their actions. Propelled by their vision, the focus and dedication of their people -- and not a small amount of talent, Apple was able to replace the so-called user friendly techno-babble of competing systems with clear, childlike graphic icons that symbolized computer commands, all in a handy desktop menu. A palm-sized “mouse” zipped work around the screen, allowing easy transfer of text, data, or graphics between programs. It was -- and is -- an elegantly simple idea. The young Apple upstarts challenged IBM, another visionary (but cautious) company, by creating a parallel operating system. Apple was bolder and faster and driven by a dream, and they won permission from the customer to compete. Now, IBM is trying to revitalize its thinking and has realized that they must change dramatically to maintain future leadership.
Steve Jobs, meanwhile, has moved on to his neXT frontier, while his successor, CEO John Scully, continues the incredible Apple Odyssey. Once a prime example of hierarchical success at PepsiCo, Scully was transformed by Jobs’ challenge to change the world, and he is now himself taking on the role of transformer. He talks not about making computers, but about building tools that will help people be more creative and innovative. The Scully vision is of an infinitely fluid future -- a knowledge-driven age where the ability to adapt and innovate is paramount, where business organizations are flatter, more flexible, more humane, networked, and less vertically rigid -- more open to change and therefore, more creative. And he envisions Apple right in the middle of it all.
Creating the Vision.
If our next big productivity gain lies in the simple act of personal empowerment, in tapping the wellspring of human capital that may be our last relatively unexplored productivity frontier, we must give people something to believe in and work for. To make our organizations more competitive, to make the lives of our people more rewarding, to serve our customers with better products at a lower cost and, as a result, make more profit, we must create a new vision that includes our people. And in the process, we must transform ourselves, our organizations, and our view of leadership.
The key to the envisioning process is imagination. Albert Einstein once said that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Lancelot likened it to “a great bell calling … like far away lights.” It’s up to the leader to imagine the shape of the future, anticipate its needs, and connect the dots -- while reinforcing the underlying values that make vision rational and humane.
Only the leader has the knowledge, perspective, experience, and legitimacy to ring the great bell loud and clear, to create and communicate an inspired vision. As Clarence Randall wrote in Making Good in Management, “the leader must know, must know that he knows, and must make it abundantly clear to those about him that he knows.”
Imagine what you want your company to become. Create an elegantly simple and relevant statement of that purpose, its meaning, direction, and ultimate value to your people and your customers. Hone your vision until you can write it on a file card. Sponsor your vision -- transfer it to your people, make it actionable -- and then start evolving your organization toward it.
Vision can magnify and extend the impact of leadership by creating a single agenda that causes people to work toward common goals. Vision transcends. It connects employees’ hearts minds, and hands, creates a common bond, and points everybody in the right direction. It provides a meaningful framework from which to create the future.
Sharing the Vision.
A magnetic and strategically sound vision cannot be “memo-ed” or “slogan-ed” into being. It must be created. The leader initiates and sponsors the envisioning process and makes it accessible. He or she must be part Pied Piper, because the leader is not only responsible for creating the vision but for singing its song -- and making everybody want to sing along. The leader shares the dream, creates focus, and begins the critical buy-in process, empowering corporate psychological ownership and seeking commitment. When people understand and accept management vision as their own, they are more likely to act in concert. Because they believe, they automatically (almost intuitively) take the right action. Vision directs. It moves people toward those “far away lights.”
A good example of creating a compelling and accessible vision is Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc., the now famous, iconoclastic Vermont ice cream company. From their start in an old gas station in 1978 to their perch today at the top of the premium ice cream market, Ben & Jerry’s raison d’être has always been based on a philosophy of corporate responsibility -- to employees, customers, shareholders, and the community. Their continuing vision is to act as a force for social change, a commitment they’ve put teeth into by making regular contributions to a number of favorite social concerns, including world peace. One may not always agree with their politics, but it’s hard to find fault with the idea that business can contribute to life instead of detract from it, a fitting legacy from the ‘60s. Ben & Jerry’s hasn’t’ been without growing pains, such as the dilemma of whether to make money first and be socially responsible later, but they’ve always had a moral compass to go by: a clearly defined corporate purpose -- and who ever said that keeping belief alive wasn’t work?
Creating and nurturing a vision is an act of willful intent. One way to begin is by developing a process to discover, confirm, and extend the vision and values that already exist within your organization. Interviewing people about how they see things is a good way to begin. Conduct the interviews on tape, using an objective outside facilitator. Include some customers (even ex-customers) and a few suppliers, and watch your “internal truth” take shape. You may not like the truth you reveal, but it gives you a good place to begin the process of organizational revitalization.
Another way to begin is with yourself. Carve out some creative “visioning” space. Encourage other leaders in your organization to do the same. Not long ago, John Scully took a brief sabbatical during which he hoped to envision nothing less than the future of tomorrow’s personal computer technology, the shape of the computer business, and the style of its leaders. Leaders who take the time and space to renew and clarify their vision are better able to communicate its purpose and excitement to their people. One approach: hold “idea retreats,” like software entrepreneur Bill Gates does with his people. Or create an employee “brain trust” to dream up new ideas and focus strategic vision, like the direct marketing division of Sara Lee Corporation has done from time to time at off-campus “future” seminars.
Do something that allows your brain to idle in neutral -- like Seymour Cray. The Cray Research chairman has a unique way of creating space for his imagination. He is said to spend a fair amount of his spare time digging a tunnel from his house to nearby woods. That’s when some of his best ideas occur. The tunnel is where he communicates with the future most clearly.
Moral Intent, Clear Communication.
Feeling and behavior is deeply rooted in effective communication. Think about the great communicators whose dreams have moved us: Thomas Jefferson, Mahatma Ghandi, FDR, JFK, Winston Churchill -- and Adolf Hitler. Each had his vision of the future. Each transferred that vision to a large group of people who accepted it as part of their lives and willfully based their actions on it. Each changed the world. Contrast the near success of Hitler’s twisted and sick vision with the transforming vision of Jesus Christ. Hitler proved that vision can be inhumanely grotesque and exploitative when its purposes are evil and self-serving, dramatically underscoring the need for guiding moral values. In this ready-fire-aim world, shared values anchor vision and purpose. They are the “mission” that guides strategic direction, inspires people to act on their beliefs, and ties them to a collective future. However, even the most positive vision can be set adrift without meaningful values to anchor it.
Without intentionally communicated, clear vision based on sound, well understood and generally accepted values, organizational discontinuity -- even torpor -- can result. If the stated purpose of a company is limited to financial and market performance, for example, without reference to human and spiritual growth (without personal empowerment), long-term management intent may be perceived as self-preserving. Without the twin guiding lights of values and purpose, there is conflict, marked by the rising cacophony of private voices. With no unifying vision, the organization may become confused and listless.
Communicate your vision consistently, and don’t stop. If it is meaningful, exciting, and relevant, you won’t get sick of talking about it, and your people won’t get sick of hearing it. Challenge them. Excite them about the future. Reward them for their successes and ingenuity while positively acknowledging their risk-taking and failures. And don’t talk in financial terms unless they are part of the payoff. Consistent, intentional communication of a meaningful mission moves people toward common goals and helps them keep in touch with each other. It assures them that everyone is speaking the same language and aiming for the same future. It inspires and directs them. Work becomes less a task and more a contribution.
Talking and Listening.
Simply getting people to talk openly to one another across organizational boundaries often can make a world of difference in how they view themselves and their work. Tarkenton Conn & Company of Atlanta, whose mission is to enhance the quality of American work life and increase productivity by giving employees more control in the workplace, says that teams of people who meet regularly to discuss and take action on short- and long-term goals can help increase productivity dramatically, sometimes as much as 50%. This author has observed that process at work in a New Jersey electronics plant, for example, where more than a 500% decrease in error rate was reported in one critical operation after employees began talking over plant problems -- and taking action. Tarkenton Conn reports that another way to enhance performance is with gain sharing, or “pay for knowledge” plans, which they say can increase organizational performance beyond 50%.
One of Lee Iacocca’s prime responsibilities when he took over at Chrysler was to inspire his people, his potential customers, and the country with a new vision of the company. His leadership, along with the people Iacocca enlisted in his vision, helped turn Chrysler around. Today, although beset with sales problems and frustrating defection from its top ranks, Chrysler still seems like it might be more fleet of foot and a more rewarding place to work than GM, which under Roger Smith, seems unable to excite its people about the future.
Ford, however, is another story. They developed a vision -- and some very successful products -- by listening intently to their people. The result was “Quality is Job One” and increased sales and profits, not to mention the sleek and solidly successful Taurus and Sable line developed with the help of customers, suppliers and employees. Even after five years on the market with no major sheet metal change, Taurus/Sable recently placed number two in a 10-best American cars reader survey by Auto Week, directly behind the hot Chevrolet Corvette, which can cost nearly four times as much.
3M also is a legendary listener, a large company that intentionally encourages pockets of innovation. In fact, 3M is famous for nurturing what former CEO Lewis W. Lehr called “practical dreamers.” The result? Even though 60% of 3M’s formal new product programs fail, a large percentage of their business at any one time comes from new products that were “envisioned” and developed during the previous six years -- like their ubiquitous yellow Post-It pads.
NCR Corporation has developed a vision of creating value for what they call the “stakeholder,” including customers, suppliers, employees, shareholders, and the communities they serve. The 62,000 people who work for NCR around the world clearly understand that their company respects “the individuality of each employees and foster(s) an environment in which employees’ creativity and productivity are encouraged, recognized, valued, and rewarded.” NCR obviously understands that a balance between individual reward and company good must be purposely maintained. It cannot be assumed. The result? Inspired performance. NCR people not only talk about creating value but act on it. Says one employee, “It makes me more aware of who makes up the team and how what I do affects others. It has changed the way I think.”
Sharing the Power.
Business can create a new, all-encompassing vision, but not without belief, commitment and risk on the part of senior managers. Sharing the future with your people requires giving up old, comfortable notions about “management.” It means freeing yourself to think creatively about the leadership of leaner (not meaner), flatter, more organic, innovative, and humane organizations. It means sharing power, a process that transforms the leader from master to servant, from manager to teacher. As others become empowered, they, too, are invested with the responsibility of leadership. They, too, become accountable for the transformation and success of still more people and their part in the success of the entire organization. The line between “us” and “them” fades.
In The Leader, Michael Maccoby cites a factory manager who was once asked, “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to lose your authority if everyone knows your job? Aren’t you giving away your authority?” His response was, “Since I started giving it away, I’ve never had so much authority.” When managers and their people are set free to express their ideas and dedicate their energies to a clear and responsible purpose, they become leaders, they become self-performers. Service -- inside and outside the company -- becomes a natural act.
The Challenge of Leadership.
The challenge of leadership today is to communicate the excitement of management vision, to give people purpose; to invest them in a meaningful mission, and to regularly renew their commitment and revitalize their spirit -- in short, to give them something to believe in and work for. The challenge of leadership today is to seek out and implement tangible ways to motivate and measure increased performance and to constantly keep fine-tuning the process so everybody stays aligned. The challenge of leadership today is to maximize the value of our human capital.
Hank Conn, whose management consulting firm has helped more than 300 companies install and implement employee gain sharing plans, including Nucor, the well-regarded low cost producer of high quality steel, calls increasing the value of the American workforce “the salvation of this country.” The new American vision may be that critical. And it may be that simple.
Vision isn’t some invisible hocus-pocus. It’s what wakes you up with a clear head in the morning, wills you off to work, and keeps your mind focused on your mission, whether you’re the CEO or someone in customer service. Author Richard Bach put it this way: “The more I want to get something done, the less I call it work.”
Creating a lasting vision for your organization and transferring it to your people can be the most frustrating, creative, and rewarding task you’ll ever undertake. It can be fun and endlessly rewarding for you and those you serve. Or, without the catalyst of conviction, your efforts can be as little noted and long remembered as a collection of Calvin Coolidge quotations. You have the opportunity to begin a truly audacious task within your organization, to start creating what Marjorie Kelly calls a “revolution in the marketplace.” Or you can opt for the status quo. It’s your choice -- and your challenge -- to start making the world a better place, beginning with your company, your people, and your vision.
Create an exciting and meaningful vision of success, communicate it to your people, nurture it, and make it work. Reach for and describe those far away lights. Invest in your human capital, and it will invest in you.
That’s the challenge of business leadership today -- beyond competitiveness.