What needs to change in business?
Nancy Koehn is a historian at the Harvard Business School where she holds the James E. Robison chair of Business Administration. Koehn's research focuses on how leaders, past and present, craft lives of purpose, worth, and impact.
Her new book, Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times is an enthralling historical narrative filled with critical leadership insights that will be of interest to a wide range of readers—including those in government, business, education, and the arts—Forged in Crisis spotlights five masters of crisis: polar explorer Ernest Shackleton; President Abraham Lincoln; legendary abolitionist Frederick Douglass; Nazi-resisting clergyman Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and environmental crusader Rachel Carson.
Koehn is the author of numerous books, articles, and Harvard Business School cases. She writes frequently for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Harvard Business Review Online. She is also a weekly commentator on National Public Radio and has appeared on many national television programs. She has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Aspen Ideas Festival, and in many other venues.
A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford University, Koehn earned a Master of Public Policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government before taking her MA and PhD in History from Harvard. She lives outside Boston and is a dedicated equestrian.
Question: What needs to change in business?
Nancy Koehn: I think a number of tectonic plates need to shift so that men and women are on a more equal footing. From the business perspective, large companies have to figure out how to retain their best talent. Their best talent is, on average, half women in many, many industries. In some industries it’s more than half their work force. We have to figure out a way to retain women and keep them in the paid work force, and keep them involved in their careers and link them to their passions through the extraordinarily important moments of having a child and raising that child. We have to open up the dialogue and begin to talk about this in ways that aren’t about a kind of toggle switch. A woman steps out. She’s out for five or six years and then she tries to get back in. That is not enough. It’s not enough to have the best people working for companies. It’s not enough for women in terms of their different life options. It simply doesn’t make sense.
A second thing that I think needs to change is that we need to start talking – and it would be enormously beneficial if we can do this at the level of the corporation, at the level of the silverback gorillas in the power echelons of this country and other countries – if we can begin talking about what it means to create a family that … in a nurturing and satisfying way. That’s a different language than work-life balance. That’s different language than work-family. We need to start talking like this with more of a nuance that the journey that so many of us are on trying to create and sustain warm and loving families that bring forth responsible, loving, healthy children … that is a more nuanced dialogue that’s in keeping with the nuance, and difficulty, and messiness of trying to work well and live well as a family member, a parent, and a citizen. So I think we need to change the dialogue.
And I think thirdly, what business can do is to start very early on helping stake out their own values in relationship to the units that men and women and kids live in. So we don’t talk about business values in terms of families. I mean a few schools do. Perhaps some religious institutions do. A few community organizations do. But very few of the large, extremely good corporate citizens in this county talk about their work and their corporate mission in terms of families; and yet everyone has a family, and everyone is very much affected in terms of the possibilities and their paths by what that family is and what it becomes. So I think we need to open the windows.
When I first moved to Britain as a graduate student many years ago, I noticed there were no screens on the windows. And I remember thinking that Europeans live with a more flow … a more open throughway between nature and domesticated space – or between nature and man than Americans do. We need to create those same throughways, or byways, or open windows without screens between business and families.
Recorded on: 6/12/07
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Centaur rocket stage
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