Several decades ago, when I was an executive at a major pharmaceutical company, the CEO asked me to go along with him to one of the company’s manufacturing facilities where he was going to give a speech to the assembled workforce. The speech had been written for him by the Head of Corporate Strategy and Industry Economics.
About a hundred workers assembled, dressed in their protective clothing and disposable surgical hats, together with management from the plant. The CEO launched into his speech: the challenges and opportunities offered by the evolving marketplace, how the company was doing particularly well and expanding, a clear exposition of the company’s financial strength, it’s profit progression and how its stock price had outperformed competition. It ended with a call for action: there are opportunities to improve and do even better and ‘you’ are a crucial part of that progress.
The whole speech fell flat – much to the surprise and consternation of the CEO. Everyone looked bored. The applause at the end was polite and perfunctory. As soon as it was over, most of the workers drifted out of the auditorium putting paid to the CEO’s unannounced plan to mingle and chat to the workforce. The only people left were the plant managers, keen to chat to the CEO and sycophantically attempting to ingratiate themselves and get noticed.
Needless to say, my boss was furious. He downloaded on the trip back and said that he was going to cancel the next speech due two weeks later at another plant.
Trying to pour some water on the fire, I suggested that he should not cancel his speech but that maybe I could help him write a different speech for his next engagement. He was skeptical and reluctant but finally agreed, if only with the parting warning ‘If it goes just as badly, on your head be it.’
So, I wrote his next speech. It started with the story of John Rubens, a 10-year-old boy with severe asthma. It went through how the asthma inhalers being produced at that plant had improved his life, and on one occasion, how it had saved him from an early death when he suffered from an acute asthma attack and admission to hospital was delayed. We stressed the importance of quality and reliability of the products produced as their use could be, literally, a matter of life or death.
The rest of the speech talked about all the other illnesses the company’s products was helping with and the ambitions of the research department to ameliorate or cure many more.
The applause came from the heart. The production line workers had a smile on their face. They hung about for a chat. Looking at the numbers a few months later, there was a small but noticeable decrease in the number of faulty products produced by that facility – but not in other plants.
One lesson I took away: nobody except a few senior managers cares a damn about the financial performance of any large corporation. Particularly so when they see that one effect is ever exploding pay packages for senior executives while the rest of the workforce, considered nothing more than an undesirable cost, keeps getting their wages contained and all efforts put in place to try to get rid of them and replace them with machines – intelligent or otherwise.
This was brought home to me again several years later chatting to a squash partner who worked for a major international bank. To make chit-chat I asked him how the business he worked for was doing. His response: “I don’t know, and I don’t care.” I was stunned – even though, maybe, I should not have been.
Outside the isolated bubble of the C-suite and one or two layers of management, employees don’t care about that which keeps senior executives awake at night. They are not motivated by seeing quarterly profit numbers in the billions while they are having difficulty making ends meet. In such a financially driven environment, work is, for most workers, a drudge. Something they would rather not do but are forced to because they have bills to pay.
People want their work to have meaning. They want to do things that yield something fulfilling. Maybe even talk to their children about with some pride.
These issues have always been there, but they are increasingly relevant in the new workplace and among the new generations. Recruitment firms know that, today, people are explicitly looking for jobs with which they can identify. Jobs that they can feel proud of because they are, somehow, making a positive contribution to the society in which they live.
In a world of online work, portfolio careers, work flexibility, and ease of moving from one job to the next, these issues are most marked among the most capable individuals – those that corporations most wish to hire and retain. To succeed in such an environment, business leaders need to have an honest conversation about the value that their business adds to our societies. They need to structure what they do, how they do it, and the very essence of why they are in business much more broadly than ‘maximizing shareholder value.’
This goes beyond fine words on a web site crafted by a clever-with-words communications agency. Or box ticking ESG scores. It goes to the very heart of why the business exists. Those who can pull it off will have the tools with which to inspire, attract and retain talent and get the best out of their workforce at any level. They will succeed – also financially.
Written by Dr. Joe Zammit-Lucia.
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