The 2000s, in my opinion, have been the most trying and difficult times C-suite executives have ever faced in American history—even tougher than the Great Depression. Not only do we have a tougher business climate, we are faced with bigger competitors—global competitors that do not operate under the same set of rules as we do in the United States. The idea that globally things are “fair and even” and “may the best managed company win” are concepts and beliefs shared by no one I know.
The global economy and unfair competitive practices aside, we continue to legislate and regulate ourselves internally to the point where we spend the majority of time wallowing around trying to create some kind of competitive advantage out of thin air. I spend a lot of time thinking about exactly what happened to us as a country post World War II when we were filled with hope and confidence that when all else failed, we could outwork you. I see great companies struggle with trying to find production efficiencies while their foreign competitors are allowed to flow products into the American market unchecked and unregulated.
I must admit to being part of the problem. Here’s why.
Post World War II, our economy was made up primarily of family businesses that covered the range of our needs from food to clothing, transportation, and manufacturing craftsmanship. Family businesses were passed down from generation to generation with the “secret sauce” that made the products or services unique to the region or geography they served. You knew where your food came from, where your clothes were made, and you even knew the name of the family that made your car.
Our returning hero’s average age was twenty-six and many were returning to the family business, or turning to trades they had learned while in the military. They were received into the workplace with open arms and the country was ready to step on the gas, fueling the largest generation of consumers the United States was ever to see.
The returning veterans were schooled in the family businesses and the discipline it took to operate them. They were charged with learning the tasks and craftsmanship of their trade because their mission was to protect the family homestead and their families relied on them. Those that had new talents put them to use, still with the idea of making America stronger and their lives better.
The results speak for themselves. Some of the strongest financial years in America were from 1945 through 1965.
And then things got tweaked. Our foreign policy became unpopular. The average age of an infantryman in Vietnam was twenty-two. Our youth (I was one of them) rebelled against everything that even resembled someone telling us what to do. Belonging to anything was frowned upon. I remember being at college one fall and seeing a group of guys spray painting a sign over a fraternity house door that said, “It’s wrong to belong.” We had begun to question everything, believe in nothing but freedom—whatever that was—and reject the foundational pillars that had given us the best economic conditions in the history of the world with the highest standard of living yet to be experienced.
It took a few years for the rebellious students of the 1960s and 1970s to get around to work, as most of us went to college, and many on the six-year plan. As we began to assume positions of authority, we slowly began to bring our rebellious nature to the workplace: We threw out tradition. We didn’t need to wear a stinking tie–we worked better in flip flops. We worked in cubicles because offices created “silos.” I remember listening with rapt attention to one of the long-haired business gurus of the time with a primetime audience tell us to break down the silos, that big oil was making too much money, and the banks were ripping us off. He had all the answers. Get your people a meditation room–that’s what attracts the real talent.
We all drank that Kool-Aid and we changed the face of American business just as we had changed the face of American culture fifteen years prior. The results speak for themselves.
Please understand that I am not accusing, because I was part of that movement and I was a leader at the C-suite level. As I look back at my career, I always felt like something was missing. No matter my success, I always felt a bit hollow. I think back on my college days and wonder why I didn’t buck the trend and rush that fraternity.
We had all lost our business discipline. I could make money; that was the easy part. But I couldn’t control my attitude and approach to anything that resembled authority and control, and believe me, I wasn’t alone. Everyone was stupid, no one could keep up with me, and I wanted to run ahead of them and demand they keep up with me. Rules were for other people, not for me. I was so good at the money-making part that most of the time, people would leave me alone because they knew inherently that they were better off for me running off like a mad man and putting money in their pockets.
I am sixty years old, and though I’ve lived life well I am still discovering and facing the truth about myself and looking to be better for it. I want to be the person who finds a way to get through to other C-suite executives and prove to them that silos work, we can be competitive globally, it is okay to be a leader, and that the single greatest gift you can bring to an organization is discipline: order overlaid with a huge dose of forgiveness. If we are to bring our economy back to any level of dominance, we must be disciplined in our approach and willing to subjugate ourselves to our mission.