Celebrate Labor Day. All Year Long

The first Monday in September is Labor Day in the United States. A federal holiday since 1894, it’s a creation of the labor movement and dedicated to celebrating the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of the country.I contemplate what celebrating the contributions of workers actually means in 2019. Consider it in the midst of an unsettling week-end in South Florida where I live, as my neighbors and I prepare for Hurricane Dorian and my friends in the Bahamas get pummeled by a direct hit.Two weeks ago, The Business Roundtable, an exclusive gathering of the world’s most influential CEOs, released a new Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation, signed by 181 CEOs. All previous statements had emphasized shareholder primacy – namely that corporations exist principally to serve shareholders. The new statement, intended to supersede all preceding ones, broadens the definition. All 181 CEOs commit to lead their companies for the benefit of ALL stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.

The announcement was greeted with fanfare. And a whole bunch of cynicism.

You’ve seen that sentiment before, writes David Lazarus, Business Columnist for the Los Angeles Times (8/21/2019) “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.” Now we’re seeing a more populist flavor of corporate propaganda. The message today is that what’s good for General Motors (and GM customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders) is good for America.Lazarus proceeds to quote Nicholas J. Cull, professor of public diplomacy at USC who focuses on propaganda studies. There seems to be a concern among the CEOs that they’re becoming the bad guys, Cull says. This suggests that the business community is expecting blowback from their policies, and they’re trying to get ahead of it.It saddens me that our Roundtable CEOs have to publicly expand their list of stakeholders. That this announcement is a radical departure from precedent. I mean, isn’t this a no-brainer? Like, really? The evidence that companies who truly take care of their workforce, for example, perform significantly better than those who don’t is richly and widely documented.The new Statement of Corporate Purpose is furthermore hampered by a lack of specificity. In the spirit of Labor Day, let’s focus a bit on one the stakeholder categories – those who perform the work. Allow me to add a bit of specificity to the conversation. There is no need to reinvent the wheel here, my CEO friends. No need to look very far. Daniel Pink, author of the classic Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, spelled out the 3 areas that unleash a worker’s intrinsic motivation. I invite you to consider these 3 areas and translate them into business structures that facilitate and unleash this level of motivation:


Is there room for those who work for you to make decisions? Is there an opportunity to initiate projects? Is there a chance to experiment and try new ways of doing things? Are there opportunities to stretch and fail? Are there substantial chunks of a work cycle that do not require a review or approval process?The opposite of autonomy: The General Manager of a $ 400 Million dollar revenue worksite tells me of having to go “up the chain” and waiting for 7 weeks to hire a new part-time employee. And you wonder why he left?


Do folks who work for you have a chance to take on increasingly challenging tasks? Do you hold real and honest conversations about enhancing workplace performance (as opposed to going through the motions because you have to conduct a performance review)? Do you have leaders who know how to appropriately challenge their teams and help them live up to their potential? Do you offer training, coaching and other developmental opportunities at every organizational level? Is a personal-growth-mindset fully integrated into how you “do work?”The opposite of Mastery: You are limited to forever performing the one or two tasks you do very well. You become known as the expert in these tasks - but you never tap or master your full potential.


Does your business have a purpose beyond enhancing shareholder value? Is this a true purpose (as opposed to a clever marketing purpose on your firm’s website)? Is everyone’s work contribution tied to such a deeper purpose? Are your statements of purpose and values actually “lived” and embodied at work? Do the leaders you work for/with show interest in your personal purpose, separate from what the corporate purpose may be?The opposite of Purpose: A purpose connects us to the heart-and-soul reasons for getting out of bed in the morning and going to work. It channels our dreams. Going to work in a place without purpose is like living a slow death every day.The frameworks and models for taking care of our employees are well-tested. We know what they are. All it takes is commitment and will.

CEOs – are you listening?

Related: Great Leaders Move Energy: Do You?