Recently, Jack Ma, Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group, was quoted in
a CNN story saying "In 30 years, a robot will likely be on the cover of
Time Magazine as the best CEO… Robots are quicker and more
rational than humans, and they don't get bogged down in emotions -- like
getting angry at competitors.”
They don’t get bogged down in emotions? Quicker and more rational?
It’s interesting that every major industrial innovation takes us further
and further away from emotion, and in turn, human to human interaction.
And it’s not a matter of resisting industrialization or advancement,
it’s about realizing what happens when we begin removing people from the
equation in business – bit by bit, little at a time. And, in doing so,
we deny them the opportunity for one of the most basic needs:
A Gallup statistic I’ve quoted for a long time says that the number
one determinant of happiness worldwide is a good job. Here’s another
Gallup quote with resonance, this time from a recent column:
…the great American dream is to have a good job, and in recent
years, America has failed to deliver that dream more than it has at any
time in recent memory. A good job is an individual’s primary identity,
their very self-worth, their dignity — it establishes the relationship
they have with their friends, community and country. When we fail to
deliver a good job that fits a citizen’s talents, training and
experience, we are failing the great American dream.
Many say this was a huge factor in the 2016 election, but how did
we get to this point? Better yet, maybe we should ask ourselves how and
when our leadership in business began to fail “the great American
If you look at the Industrial Revolution, when Henry Ford started
making Model T Fords, mass production was about mass production. It was
not about human dignity or human growth.
There were many economic benefits. We give great credit to the
Industrial Revolution for raising the standard of living in our country,
which isn’t a bad thing. Factories for cars, shoes and appliances came
to small communities.
Henry Ford paid people fairly well, compared to what they could
make on a farm. But we took a farmer who had a craft and a pride in his
craft, (though also an unpredictable income stream) and we gave him a
job in a factory. And he went from being a craftsman in his trade or
working on a farm and we put him on an assembly line where he put on a
hubcap every 15 seconds.
Then we measured how fast he put on those hubcaps and we thought,
maybe we can get him to do this in 12 seconds. Why? Not to create a more
meaningful role for this man or woman, but because we wanted to make
more money. We wanted to get our cost down so people would buy more
cars. We were enamored with mass production and the wealth it created.
And, because we were focused on wealth creation and not people,
Unions were formed to protect the people we employed because we were
more interested in our product and our customers than our people.
At some point, companies started making so much money, we could
afford to be nice to people because we needed them to meet our market
demand. We gave them vacation time and benefits because we had to
compete for skilled talent. But, just as before, we didn’t do it to
improve the lifestyle of the person, we did it because we needed them to
produce product and wealth.
All of a sudden, in the 1950s and early 1960s, America started
facing more international competition. Their prices were lower than our
prices. Once this happened, we decided we couldn’t afford to give that
skilled assembly worker in Evansville, Indiana or Toledo, Ohio $15 an
To maintain our profits and compete, we started moving good paying
jobs to places like Mexico, then to Brazil. Factories in Evansville and
Toledo were abandoned. Now we’ve moved those jobs to China, because
we’re constantly in the search of the person who would work for
considerably less than the last person.
Eventually, those more price competitive imports were of good or
better quality. So we went overseas to study innovations in industrial
process improvement like Toyota’s Lean. But again, it was never to
enrich the person’s experience, it was to eliminate waste. It was never
about allowing people to express their gifts fully.
That’s the piece business has lost and that’s the piece we’ve found
on our journey at Barry-Wehmiller. People are capable of doing amazing
things if we just give them the environment in which they can discover,
develop, share, and be appreciated for their gifts. Creating
opportunities through which they can realize their potential and be
appreciated for it is how we, in business, can fix the broken American
A quote from a recent CBS News article that references a New York Times poll says:
… The number of Americans who still believe in the American Dream
is slipping. It was 72 percent in early 2009, at the worst of the
financial crisis, and 64 percent this past December, in spite of the
improved economy… The flip side of the news that faith in the American
Dream has slipped to 64 percent, is that 64 percent — nearly two-thirds
of Americans — still DO believe in an idea that is often about much more
than making money.
People want to believe. It’s our responsibility as leaders to make
the American Dream a reality. We can do this by moving away from the
singular focus on shareholder value and working toward leadership
practices that create environments where people are given the
opportunity to express their gifts fully. An environment where people
feel valued for who they are and what they do as we collectively aspire
to a vision that creates value for all stakeholders.
Business could be the most powerful force for good if it simply
cared about the lives that make it possible. And that’s not something
that will happen with robot CEOs.