Industry for the 21st Century Trail

Stop 1: Kent, WA

You can’t build an organization that’s fit for the future without first building one that’s fit for human beings

Gary Hamel – The future of management

Today we embark on the third of our virtual trails, one devoted to the businesses that make this country great.

Great companies turn great profits. In a capitalist system, no company is going to be considered successful unless it eventually returns a significant profit. But those are table stakes and the best companies aim higher. Yes, they produce great returns but they do so while also inspiring their employees and customers, strengthening their communities and making the world a better place. In fact, after the last 15 years at an organization called The Human Capital Institute, I have long since consumed the Koolaid that says they turn great profits because they do those other things.

On the Industry for the 21st Century trail we will visit the towns and cities these companies call home, starting in the Pacific Northwest.

Worth Celebrating

It is probably obvious since I have included it here, but I believe REI, the outdoor retailer based just south of Seattle, is an unusual company. I could write several long paragraphs explaining why but I think this video from the company itself sums it up nicely in less than two minutes.

A few years back, I was emceeing HCI’s annual Employee Engagement Conference in San Francisco. We have put on dozens of conferences on a variety of talent-related topics over the years but I have always found the topic of engagement to be the most inspiring. For those outside the realm of Strategic Talent Management, which I expect is most of the readers of this blog, the idea of engagement is simple; the more you are engaged with your work the better your work will be and the happier you will be with your job. There are all kinds of benefits of this, engagement leads to productivity, engaged people tend to feed the motivation of others around them too and engaged employees stay with the company longer and thus lower recruitment costs.

At this conference an HR executive from REI presented on the topic of employee experience and mentioned an idea that motivated me to do something I do pretty infrequently, get out my phone and open up Twitter. She referenced the hashtag #OptOutside. For the last five years, on November’s Black Friday – the busiest retail day of the year, REI has given all of its employees the day off to be outside with their friends and family. Other companies have gotten in on this act and I applaud all of them, but REI was the first I heard about and the move was also so completely in line with the company’s values I found it (and find it) inspiring.

Corporate Social Responsibility has been all the rage in big business for the last decade or more and on most of the Fortune 500’s websites you will find mission statements about “giving back to the community” and I am all for it. But it is not hard to see that for many of them it is a PR effort and not much else. The Stewardship Report at REI feels quite a bit different than that, not just because of what the company does, but because of the way they talk about it. My friend David Forman, the longtime Chief Learning Officer of HCI, uses a term he calls the Triple Win in some of his work. It represents a symbiotic world in which companies, their employees and the communities they live in all thrive by looking after their collective best interests. REI, which has been on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list every year since 1998, feels like a company that embraces that concept.

This is not utopia, though. REI has challenges too. Covid-19 has hit the company hard, as it has with many retailers – it had a number of layoffs last year and it made headlines when it sold a brand new 400,000 square foot headquarters it had just completed to Facebook last summer without ever moving in. But even that direction, perhaps, was set with the same compass it has always seemed to use, the best interest of its overall ecosystem including its employees, members and the community.

Lest it seem that this post is about to embark on an anti-capitalism rant, I will clarify, I am all for corporate profits and big business. Not all companies can be co-ops like REI even if they wanted to be. But it turns out I think, that doing the right thing by employees, customers and communities is also good business.

Writing this post has caused me to think back to other Human Capital Institute conferences over the years. It has been more than a decade since with we had the author and professor Gary Hamel of London Business School as a keynote at our annual Human Capital Summit. His talk was about his, then, recent book The Future of Management. I listened as he made the comment in the quotation above and found it thought-provoking then, as I do now. His talk was quite similar to the one in this link below -I think it is as relevant today as it was then. If you have 15 minutes I highly recommend it. Better yet, watch it and then send it to your boss.

A Work in Progress

Kent, which is the sixth largest city in Washington, sits about halfway between Seattle and Tacoma and a bit farther east than either. It is quite a bit larger than the two cities we’ve covered in other trails thus far and it is growing much more rapidly. The city had 17,711 residents in 1970 and 131,118 in 2019, which represents growth of 640 percent.

Not suprisingly, that pace of growth has brought about a new set of challenges. Kent, which operates on a mayor-council system of government, announced its 2021 legislative priorities last month and many of them are consistent with a city trying to keep up with the rapidly changing needs of its residents.

There are several projects aimed at making commuting easier in the crowded roadways of the area, though it will be interesting to see what impact the decision by REI and other area companies to continue allowing large groups of employees to work from home, even after Covid, will have on traffic. However, tops on the list of priorities is Social Justice Reform. The City Council in its statement was relatively specific about what it means by that:

  • Social Justice Reform
    We are listening. We are learning. We are changing. The City is committed to working with state legislators, community members, and other stakeholders in identifying and supporting social justice reform. Specifically, the City requests that the Legislature fund mental health professionals to work alongside police officers, establish standardized use of force reporting requirements, fund data collection from law enforcement agencies to identify and address racial disparity, and allocate funding to ensure improved communication and access to government for non-English speaking individuals.

Balancing the desire for a change in the way police work with the continued need for police work is a front and center issue in this part of Washington and many cities across the nation. Last month, on the same day the legislative priorities were announced, a police car was set on fire outside City Hall and the city’s police chief went before the City Council two weeks later with some grim statistics on crime calling it “a little bit of an open season” due to Covid-19.

This interesting article about the Biden administration’s similar balancing act at the federal level appeared on the Voice of America website last week.

Coming up next on the Project to Find America, it’s back to the middle of the country for the launch of the Arts & Culture Trail.

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