Summer 2019@work: Cathedral Thinking, Blue Oceans and Redefining the Purpose of a Corporation

While you were away, the U.S. commemorated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and the effort to rebuild Notre Dame began in Paris. In New York, members of the Business Roundtable considered a new definition of the purpose of a corporation and Ava Duvernay continued to challenge conventional wisdom. It was a summer of cathedral thinking, blue oceans and questioning expertise.

These are the stories of folks who went to work every day, extending the definition of work and workplace beyond traditional boundaries to solve problems and create a vision of the future.

Here’s a sampling of articles from the Summer of 2019:

‘Why the Moon Landing Matters’ David Lidsky, Fast Company – June 1, 2019

In this moment when government is viewed by so many Americans as being unable to dream as big as it did in the 1960s, whether the dream is traveling the solar system or forestalling the calamitous effects of climate change, understanding how NASA got us to the Moon the first time is both important and inspirational. The Apollo Moon landings were an extraordinary undertaking, but they were the work of ordinary people back on Earth. We need exactly that kind of effort to tackle some of the problems we face today, from economic inequality to climate change. The Moon can show us the way.

‘Two Magical Places That Sent Apollo 11 to the Moon and Back’ Kenneth Chang, The New York Times – July 13, 2019

The two key pieces that were the astronauts’ home during their lunar trips were built on opposite sides of the country.

The Apollo capsules rolled off the assembly line in Downey, Calif., a small city 15 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Fifty years ago, NASA owned a 160-acre swath of Downey — the size of two Disneylands — that was home to factories, offices and test facilities.

The story was almost the same in Bethpage, N.Y., on Long Island. That was the headquarters of Grumman Aircraft, which won the contract to build the spindly spacecraft that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon.

In April, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris came close to being destroyed by fire. This summer The New York Times created an interactive site to document the event and the story of those who saved the cathedral.

‘Notre Dame came far closer to collapsing than people knew. This is how it was saved.’ Elian Peltier, James Glanz, Mika Grondahl, Weiyi Cai, Adam Nossiter, and Liz Alderman. July 18, 2019

That Notre-Dame still stands is due solely to the enormous risks taken by firefighters in those third and fourth hours. 

Disadvantaged by their late start, firefighters would rush up the 300 steps to the burning attic and then be forced to retreat. Finally, a small group of firefighters was sent directly into the flames, as a last, desperate effort to save the cathedral.


“There was a feeling that there was something bigger than life at stake,” said Ariel Weil, the mayor of the city’s Fourth Arrondissement, home to the cathedral, “and that Notre-Dame could be lost.”

On August 19, the Business Roundtable issued a new statement on the purpose of the corporation.

‘Business Roundtable Redefines the Purpose of a Corporation to Promote ‘An Economy That Serves All Americans’

While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders. We commit to:
–  Delivering value to our customers. We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations.
–  Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect.
–  Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. We are dedicated to serving as good partners to the other companies, large and small, that help us meet our missions.
–  Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.
–  Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. We are committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders.

We learn from the wisdom of others and this summer, writer, producer and director Ava DuVernay leads on innovation.

‘How Ava DuVernay Is Finding Blue Oceans in Hollywood’ Nilofer Merchant, Harvard Business Review – August 7, 2019

“Conventional thinking in red oceans is why blue oceans go undiscovered.

New markets are found when someone stands in a spot that gives them a point of view distinctly their own.


DuVernay has shown us what the work of discovering blue oceans looks like: It is claiming that spot in the world where only you stand, even if that means leaving rooms where you’re being dismissed and marginalized. It is gathering your crew, those who share your commitment and purpose and will work to create new truths. It is finding the communities that can share your vision and scale it. These are unconventional ways to lead. Leaving. Social. Sharing. They seem counterintuitive and even wrong to those who lead red oceans. But they are how growth and progress and innovation happen. It’s what explorers do to chart new territory.”

The last article from the summer continues the conversation on expertise and how we are all being asked to ‘do more with less.”

‘At Work, Expertise is Falling Out of Favor’ Jerry Useem, The Atlantic – July, 2019

“By 2020, a 2016 World Economic Forum report predicted, “more than one-third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations” will not have been seen as crucial to the job when the report was published. If that’s the case, I asked John Sullivan, a prominent Silicon Valley talent adviser, why should anyone take the time to master anything at all? “You shouldn’t!” he replied.

As a rule of thumb, statements out of Silicon Valley should be deflated by half to control for hyperbole. Still, the ramifications of Sullivan’s comment unfurl quickly. Minimal manning—and the evolution of the economy more generally—requires a different kind of worker, with not only different acquired skills but different inherent abilities. It has implications for the nature and utility of a college education, for the path of careers, for inequality and employability—even for the generational divide. And that’s to say nothing of its potential impact on product quality and worker safety, or on the nature of the satisfactions one might derive from work. Or, for that matter, on the relevance of the question What do you want to be when you grow up?

Summing up the summer recap: ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things. You just need to find your unique scenic view of the world, an employer who values your contribution, and an ability to adapt.

Photo credits: Moon Landing – NASA, Notre Dame worker – Patrick Zachmann for Magnum Arts

The week@work – The pressure to succeed @school, @work and @amazon

This week@work includes articles that echo a growing concern that we are not adequately preparing our children for the future @work, millennials expectations @work, and Amazon’s culture that just may be more in line with those expectations.

Are we teaching our children to fear failure? Contributing Atlantic writer Jessica Lahey answers the question by narrating a parent – teacher conversation. The parent is expressing a concern about a child who is achieving academically but losing the desire to learn.

“The truth—for this parent and so many others—is this: Her child has sacrificed her natural curiosity and love of learning at the altar of achievement, and it’s our fault. Marianna’s parents, her teachers, society at large—we are all implicated in this crime against learning. From her first day of school, we pointed her toward that altar and trained her to measure her progress by means of points, scores, and awards. We taught Marianna that her potential is tied to her intellect, and that her intellect is more important than her character. We taught her to come home proudly bearing As, championship trophies, and college acceptances, and we inadvertently taught her that we don’t really care how she obtains them. We taught her to protect her academic and extracurricular perfection at all costs and that it’s better to quit when things get challenging rather than risk marring that perfect record. Above all else, we taught her to fear failure. That fear is what has destroyed her love of learning.”

Innovation is the product of failure. At a time when global competition is intense, there is a shortage of the curious, the questioning.

It’s time to reevaluate our priorities and help “kids rediscover their intellectual bravery, their enthusiasm for learning, and the resilience they need in order to grow into independent, competent adults.”

What happens when these adults move into the workplace? What are their expectations?

In 2007 the Gallup Management Journal published the results of a poll of job seekers asking what was important to them in their job search.

“Nearly half of job seekers say the opportunity to learn and grow, the opportunity for advancement, and earning promotions based on merit are extremely important when looking for a job”

It follows that the quality of management and the relationship with ‘the boss’ are critical factors in recruitment and retention.

“Companies know they must offer competitive compensation packages when fighting for talented employees, and they must offer the right types of work for those seeking jobs. If they don’t revise their recruiting pitch to include concrete examples of great management, and if they don’t have great managers in the first place, then job seekers will listen to companies that do.”

Hopefully great managers will allow employees to fail. But apparently not, according to the next story about the generation we continue to label as millennials.

In a post for Inc. Chis Matyszczyk gives us four reasons these folks are leaving their jobs.

“They’ve seen what corporate life did to their parents, so they’ll take it just in small doses, thanks. They see through their bosses (and their bosses hate them for it). Millennials look at the corporate world and understand how uncertain the future is. Most of their role models got rich quick.”

If the expectation is to take corporate life in small doses, perhaps a resume should include some time at the world’s biggest retailer.

Welcome to orientation at Amazon. The ‘above the fold’ story in The New York Times today describes the corporate culture at Amazon. As all things Amazon the culture reflects the values. leadership principles and vision of Jeff Bezos.

“Amazon may be singular but perhaps not quite as peculiar as it claims. It has just been quicker in responding to changes that the rest of the work world is now experiencing: data that allows individual performance to be measured continuously, come-and-go relationships between employers and employees, and global competition in which empires rise and fall overnight. Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.”

Key to Amazon’s success is Jeff Bezos’ realistic view of the new employer-employee contract – one based on mutual utility.

“…he was able to envision a new kind of workplace: fluid but tough, with employees staying only a short time and employers demanding the maximum.”

A few additional articles from the week@work:

‘Design As Strategy’ Adi Ignatius for The Harvard Business Review, September 2015 issue: “…illustrates some of the ways design thinking is starting to power corporate strategy.”

The Perils of Ever-Changing Work Schedules Extend to Children’s Well-Being‘ Noam Scheiber for The New York Times, 8/12: “A growing body of research suggests that children’s language and problem-solving skills may suffer as a result of their parents’ problematic schedules, and that they may be more likely than other children to smoke and drink when they are older.”

‘The Makeup Tax’ Olga Khazan  The Atlantic 8/5  “Years of research has shown that attractive people earn more. Thus, the makeup tax: Good-looking men and good-looking women both get ahead, but men aren’t expected to wear makeup in order to look good.”