Last Things First
A Keynote Address
by Katherine Clarke, Ph.D.
at the Conference
So Now What: Beyond the Clichés of Leadership
Center for Organizational Reform
October 25, 2001
On the morning of September 11th, hundreds of people, fearing they were about to die, made a phone call. Never before in history have we had the opportunity to hear, with such immediacy and on such a scale, the actual last thoughts and concerns of people facing death. What they said in that phone call was: “I love you.” They called spouses and partners. They called parents and children. They called cherished friends. They called and said, “I love you.”
They did not call their brokers. They did not call work. They did not negotiate a last deal. They called whoever it was to whom they could say what ultimately mattered in their life: “I love you.”
As I have, like all of you, pondered the meaning of the events of September 11th, nothing has touched me more deeply. Nothing has provoked so much thought. “I love you.” The last words. The last thing that mattered. I find myself wondering: if this is what matters at the end, what about all the other things that take up our energies in the meantime? I find myself asking, “Am I living my life today, according to the ‘I love you’ that is ultimately important to me?” And I find myself wondering whether the leadership I exercise helps people to live according to what ultimately matters to them.
I wonder if I help create an organization that lets people spend their days working for what ultimately matters to them, their own “last things.” I wonder if their days “add value” to their lives, or only “add value” to the bottom-line. Are they “making meaning” or are they simply making money?
I was a late initiate to the world of business and leadership. I went back to school for my MBA after fifteen years as a psychologist teaching in divinity schools that prepare priests and ministers for their jobs. My academic research was centered on how people create meaning after their cherished beliefs or values are shattered by life circumstances. The values I dealt with were things like trust, justice, fidelity, security, and love. These added meaning and value to people’s lives. When something happened to violate these values– the death of a beloved child, for example–the road back was difficult and complicated.
You can imagine my surprise, on the first day of Economics class, to learn an entirely different notion of value-added. By definition, the market value of a firm’s output less the value of the input that it has purchased from others is “value-added.” Very simple. You buy wool, knit it into sweaters, sell them for more than you paid for the wool, and you have added value. On the one hand, I was delighted to learn that such a straightforward process could accomplish such a noble aim. On the other hand, I was shocked and appalled to hear what the business world thought it was doing. Adding value and making money was the same thing.
As you know, this bottom line “adding value” is no longer the exclusive province of the for-profit sector. The non-profit sector, including the educational world, has adopted most, if not all, of the business practices of the for-profit world. As evaluation and accountability become the watchwords of philanthropy, it is not enough for non-profits to point simply to their good works to justify their existence or their funding if they do not “add value.”
The New Economy
I would suggest that the discrepancy between “adding value” to workers’ lives and “adding value” to the bottom line of a firm or organization has never been greater than we find these days. People are working longer and harder and finding themselves less and less satisfied with their lives. We find this across income levels. We find this in places we never expected to find it. The phrase “white-collar sweatshop” has entered our vocabulary.
Meet a woman we’ll call Gemma, a participant in Jill Andresky Fraser’s disturbing study of the deterioration of work and its rewards in corporate America. Gemma is a marketing executive. She tries to leave the office at 5 o’clock every night to catch the 5:30 train out of Grand Central Station to go home to her upscale suburb in New Jersey. During the ride, she calls her office not once, but twice to pick up messages. Speaking as quietly as possible, she returns numerous phone calls. “ Its the only way I can get home in time to have dinner with my family, she says.” She speaks quietly on the cell phone because all around her other travelers are doing the same thing or working feverishly on laptops or yellow notepads.
Home by 6:15 Gemma puts dinner together, eats with her husband and children, and by 7:30, while the kids finish homework or watch TV, she is back checking voice mail and e-mail, returning calls and handling faxes that have been sent to her home by clients or colleagues. Her husband is there, too, working on the home computer writing or amending the deals he prepares as an investment banker. They have lots of money. They have no time.
Describing her life Gemma says: “I never relax. I honestly feel that I never relax. When I’m at the office, I never go out to lunch. All I do is try to get work done. I don’t have time for anything else. It’s gotten worse and worse. I fantasize every day about doing more things for myself. I want to work out. I can’t. I need physical therapy. I can’t get it. You work so hard and rush to be home with the family. Then you’re short with them. Even though that’s where you want to be, you’re too tired at night. You get cranky, exhausted.”
This is the human side of the statistics. According to a large-scale survey of some 50,000 American households, the average working adult now puts in almost 2000 hours a year for pay–about two weeks longer than he or she put in a decade ago. The average married couple with children worked a combined 3,918 hours, about seven weeks more than a decade ago. In 1969, according to Census data, 38% of married mothers between the ages of 20 and 55 worked for pay. Now almost 70% do. In 1979, a thirty-year-old man with no more than a high school diploma earned $32,000 if he worked full time (in today’s dollars). Now he earns about $5000 less. To fill the gap, more women have gone into paid work and work longer hours. Blue-collar workers put in much more overtime in the 1990s. Some of the overtime was involuntary–companies didn’t want to bring on extra workers and by American labor law they can require workers to work overtime. Some of it was voluntary because blue-collar workers know how precarious their paychecks are. At the professional and managerial level, since the mid-1980s, the proportion of men who work at least 50 hours a week has grown by a third.
The social fallout of this increase in paid work is enormous. As people spend more and more time working, they have less time for the other aspects of their lives that matter. Children are cared for by paid workers. Elderly people live in “assisted living” where paid workers–often low-paid immigrant workers–do for them what their families would have done in another time. Therapists, personal trainers, life coaches and massage professionals provide, for payment, the attention that intimate partners used to give one another. Now, they cannot afford to spend time giving one another personal attention because of the costs of not working.
Why? Why are Americans working more and more and achieving less and less of what matters? Is this rampant workaholism? Is America just a nation of over-achievers? Is it simply greed? I think not.
In my opinion, one of the best explanations of what’s going on in America these days comes from political economist and former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, in his recent book, The Future of Success. Dr. Reich discusses the social implications of the new economy. We all know we’re living in the age of the Internet and instant communications. But Reich suggests that the best way to describe the era we’re living in, is the “The Age of the Terrific Deal.” In the “Age of the Terrific Deal” choices are almost limitless and it’s easy to switch to something better. A couple of clicks and we have found exactly what we want to buy, with better features, at a better price. According to Reich, this is the first principle of the new economy. Understanding it is key to understanding what is happening to the rest of our lives. All else follows from the principle of “the better deal.”
Reich characterizes Americans as a kind of “people of the better deal.” Most of them came to this country in search of a better deal. He doesn’t think the pursuit of the better deal is exclusive to the United States–it’s just more extreme here. He believes the Age of the Terrific Deal started in earnest several decades ago and has been gaining momentum ever since. Now it is kicking into high, high gear. He says, “Combine the Internet, wireless satellites, fiber optics, great leaps in computing power, quantum expansion of broadband connection, a map of the human genome–and you’ve got a giant global bazaar of almost infinite choice and possibility. We’re on the way to getting exactly what we want, instantly, from anywhere, at the best value for our money.” This is the Age of the Terrific Deal.
But the Age of the Terrific Deal has consequences. It intensifies competition at all levels. It forces every seller or service provider to innovate like mad and cut costs. Profits now come from quickness to innovate and attract and keep customers, or students, or patients. This change from an economy driven by large-scale industrial production, to an economy driven by the better deal, has come first to the U.S., but other countries are rapidly following suit.
The new economy has changed enormously how we work and how are work is rewarded. Earnings are more volatile and less predictable. Talented and ambitious people can make much more money relative to the median wage of workers like them in the industrial era. But it is also true that more jobs, like Gemma’s, require unremitting effort. These jobs are also subject to the greater risks of sharp drops in earnings, as companies and organizations cut costs. They cut costs by eliminating jobs in order to provide a better deal to their customers. Disparities in income and wealth have widened to a degree unknown in over a century. The top of the ladder has got higher and the bottom’s gotten lower and the distance between each rung on the ladder gets wider continuously.
Without question, the enormous productivity of this new economy has provided significant benefits. By definition, all of this greater productivity has “added value.” But the definition of “value-added” is everything. In terms of the material quality of our lives, most of us are better off than ever before. Value has been added. But what about what we value? What about who and what we love?
Is this new economy worth what it costs us? To review: The new economy requires that people work harder and harder and longer and longer. There’s more uncertainty about earnings, wider inequality, more competition, and greater consequences of not doing well. Paid work is crowding out many of the other things that matter to people. To work more, much of what matters is being outsourced or sacrificed. Time spent with children, with intimate partners, with friends and family is less and less. People are too exhausted by the time they finish with paid work to give the attention to their loved ones who give meaning to their lives. Paradoxically, working for a living is depriving us of a life. Making money is not the same thing as making meaning.
So Now What?
So now what? As our conference title asks: now what? What do we do? Please do not miss my choice of the word “we.” Personal solutions to this can only go so far. There is only so much priority setting and time efficiency that individuals can do when they are embedded in a continuously innovating, highly competitive market place. Personal solutions require a freedom that is just not there in the interrelated nature of the world as it is now. Even opting out of the contemporary world will not really free up much time or energy, if people have to go back to the time-consuming, labor-intensive activities of traditional survival. It takes a lot of time to milk a cow, collect eggs, and chop wood. Of course, personal priorities are essential. Simplifying can free us from excessive want. But something more is required. Something is required of us a community.
We are at a moment, collectively, about making choices. We must make choices that will help us achieve as many of the benefits of the new economy as possible, while at the same time eliminating its excesses and tempering its injustices. We’ve done this before. We did it in the United States when the industrial age ramped up. We chose child labor laws, rules about working conditions, social insurance, access to education, income tax, and regulation of industries. Now we must make new choices that respond to the realities of a new economy. Even as we reap the benefits of this new economy, we are in the throes of recognizing its costs.
How do we as a society, as organizations and communities engage in this process of making choices? How do we as leaders help people have the kinds of conversations that must go before choices? These are conversations about what matters, about meaning. You cannot and must not choose until you know what matters. You cannot develop strategies to implement your choices before you decide what matters. We are at a moment when a critical part of exercising leadership is helping people reflect on the discrepancy between what really matters and what they are finding in their day-to-day experience. Since values are always choices about what is most meaningful to us, we must engage in a discourse of meaning-making. In leadership most of us are much more comfortable with a discourse of problem-solving. What’s the difference between meaning-making and problem-solving?
Meaning-making vs. Problem-solving
The difference between meaning-making and problem-solving starts with how we position ourselves in front of issues. Is there a problem to be solved or are there choices of meaning and values to be made? These are not the same thing. We need ways of recognizing the moments in an organization’s or community’s life that indicate the need for meaning making. Ron Heifetz’s distinction between technical work and adaptive work is one way of identifying this moment. Another is the awareness that doing more of the same will not bring a different result. You know you’re at a moment for meaning making when there is a changed reality, either inside or outside the organization, and there is no going back to the way it was before.
At a moment of meaning making there is always distress. Distress shows in people’s emotions, for example, frustration, exhaustion, anger. In businesses distress shows up as declines in profitability, loss of market share, drop in stock price. Distressed non-profits suffer lack of funding, failure of programs, and employee turnover.
It is easy to treat these signs of distress as problems to be solved, as “noise in the system” to be fixed or tuned out. It is more difficult to recognize them as indications that what matters is not happening. As leaders we are usually far more comfortable solving problems than addressing matters of meaning and values. It is extremely difficult for people exercising leadership to hold off on problem-solving. All of the pressures of the organization are brought to bear on the leader to “fix this!” “Take away this distress.” “Don’t ask us to face what it means and make choices about it.”
The tremendous challenge for leaders who want to help people and organizations to address matters of meaning is to help them identify what the distress is about in terms of their deepest values about what matters. Distress, personal or organizational, is always about violated meaning and values. What matters is not happening. Many of Heifetz’s strategies help surface the issues about what matters to different stakeholders and constituencies. Tracking and articulating the discrepancies between what matters and what is happening, is a critical task of leadership.
Another key element to meaning making that sets it apart from problem-solving is that it often begins when organizations or societies recognize the limits of what can be. I think Robert Reich would say that this is about where we are with the Age of the Terrific Deal. We cannot have the enormous productivity, competition, and volatility of the technology based economy and not have the social consequences we currently see. We are up against the limit case. We really cannot have it all. Organizations and societies will resist this over and over again. Choices about meaning are very often precipitated because life somehow clobbers us into realizing that we cannot have it all. We really must make choices and trade offs to protect what matters. Over and over again we stumble up against our inherently human tendency to think we are without limits.
At moments of meaning-making a key task of leadership is to help organizations put clearly into words what matters. Cherished beliefs and values become mired in the surround of everyday life and must be lifted up and articulated so that people know what they mean. Meaning must be made explicit. Values must be held up so that they can be examined and either revised or kept. This is not a call for leaders to preach or proselytize their own values, but to listen deeply to organizations they belong to, for what is being said, in words and actions, about what matters. Leadership for meaning-making listens for what matters now, what mattered before, and what we want to matter in the future. Articulating this evolving history of what matters lets people make the choices that have to be made.
Meaning-making is not something that happens once and for all in an organization or society. It happens in an ever re-occurring cycle of valuing, choosing, and acting, reevaluating, choosing again, and acting again. You solve problems when you know what your choices are. You have to know what your values are before you can make choices about them. The worst cart before the horse mistake that anyone exercising leadership can make is to get drawn into problem-solving before choices are made on the basis of values, on the basis of what matters.
We are at an historical moment when human society as a whole, must decide what matters and make choices that will ensure that what matters will continue. As never before as leaders, we are challenged to help people engage in this crucial task of meaning-making
I work at a graduate school supported, like this one, Gonzaga, by the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. One of the great leaders of the Jesuits, Pedro Arrupe, said something that has come back to me as I have pondered these questions about what matters. He was talking about God, and about falling in love with God. For me that is very close to talking about what matters. He said:
What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evening, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.† Fall in love, stay in love and it will decide everything.
With the words of Pedro Arrupe, again, I find myself wondering whether the leadership I exercise helps people to live according to who or what they are in love with.
Fraser, Jill Andresky (2001). White-collar sweatshop: The deterioration of work and its rewards in corporate America. New York: Norton.
Reich, Robert B. (2001). The future of success. New York: Knopf.