A CEO developed a vision of how his company could help the unemployed. He shared it with another CEO who is normally a positive person. The second man said, “We already tried it and it was a failure.” After making the statement, the second man showed zero interest and the discussion ended.
A short time later, the first CEO shared the idea with me. I told him of a company that did almost the same thing and succeeded. He was interested.
The successful company was Cascade Engineering. The CEO of that company was Fred Keller. The idea of hiring welfare recipients emerged in a conversation with one of the managers in his organization. Fred encouraged the man to take action.
The man hired some welfare recipients and in weeks they were all gone. He reported the failure. Fred suggested that the account was not a failure but a demonstration that company had not learned how to succeed. The man went back with increased commitment. He threw himself at learning how to make the idea succeed. An impressive strategy emerged, but it turned into a second failure. Fred held to his position that the problem was in the failure to learn. A third effort emerged.
This time the man in charge began to notice the problems, not with the welfare recipients, but with the employees of the company. After much reflection, every person in the company participated in a poverty simulation. After the simulation, the project began to progress. It so fully succeeded that the company was given a major award by the White House and numerous new resources flowed to the company, resources they did not anticipate acquiring.
The company then began to work on hiring people getting out of prison. The learning process was similar. It did not fully work until all the employees went through a training program on racism. Again new resources flowed to the company.
So the company acquired a strategic competitive advantage that was difficult for other companies to imitate. The advantage brought predictable resources like fierce employee loyalty and unpredictable resources like new networks of external interaction and opportunity.
The new competitive advantage was not designed. It emerged from embracing a higher purpose, visioning a new strategy, and committing to deep learning. In the process, the company discovered what all individuals and groups learn in the process of deep learning. We are a part of the system we observe. We are part of a dynamic whole. For the system to change, we have to change. In the words of Gandhi, we have to be the change we want to see in the world. When the people in the company began to revise their own biases about impoverished people, the impoverished people were able to revise their own assumptions about impoverished people working in a professional company. They began to believe and change followed.
I think of the uninterested CEO. From experience, he is sure that what I describe here is impossible. I compare him to Fred Keller. Fred is sure that it is possible. Our ability to engage in deep learning has much to do with our capacity to lead.
- When has our team, unit, or organization acquired a new competency?
- What is deep learning and what does it have to do with new competencies?
- In the process of deep learning, what do we discover about ourselves?
- How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?