December 3, 2001—Making
Goodbye, Columbus. At his son's wedding in the movie
Goodbye Columbus, the proud dad rejoices in his good fortune: "Rocko,
I'm not kidding myself, is not the smartest boy in the world. But he's a
nice boy." And in the right kind of world, nice is what it takes.
Nice Is Nice. Since September 11th, "nice" has come into style. A
host of people have become a whole lot easier to deal with. Americans have
pulled together, as they are known to do in a crisis. We are reminded of
some magic days in New York City, perhaps twenty years ago, when the police
went on a short, abortive strike. The crime rate actually went down during
this walkout, the criminals acting a bit better during the emergency. The
stirrings of fellowship during the present emergency have been
heart-warming, a wonderful contrast to the self-absorption and bitter
partisanship that came before.
A Generous Trend. Crisis aside, upbeat notes had begun to be sounded
even during the wasted decade of the gay nineties, perhaps unnoticed amidst
all the clatter. Peter Drucker, the management theorist whose career had
been devoted to the crucible of the corporation, finally turned his
attention to the nonprofit sector, without which a market economy would
grind to a halt. An old acquaintance and early Silicon Valley venture
capitalist now has refocused himself on bringing entrepreneurial techniques
to philanthropy. Michael Milken, clearly exempt from the ranks of the
world's nice men, has felt obliged to create a good works and future studies
foundation in order to get with the trend. In other words, more and more fat
cats have taken, to use a hackneyed refrain, to "giving back," having
already eaten a fair amount from the trough. All this has been coupled with
lots of discourse about "civility" and "better manners."
Bending the Rules. Being nice to strangers is simply happening more
often in business, sometimes by design. Over time we have had to cancel two
credit cards with Citibank, which has a long and proud tradition of being
rude to customers who dare to call. In contrast, the folks at MBNA in
Wilmington, stand apart, quickly and cheerfully solving the crazy little
problems that occur in the digital age, offering considerable empathy along
the way. Year in and year out, L.L. Bean's phone people act with integrity,
dispatch, and pleasantness, to a degree not often found in catalog shops.
Angus Barn, a middling, high-volume steak house in Raleigh, North Carolina,
has so trained its kitchen staff that each, without fail, stops to greet
patrons on a VIP tour, no matter how busy things are. Very warm service has
become a business strategy at several enterprises, and it is a clear
competitive advantage of a host of Japanese companies. But the nice thing is
that even at stridently bad service enterprises--hospitals, airlines,
telephone companies--a number of contrarian employees are bending
anti-customer rules to help one get through the day.
The Altruism Paradox. Yale University's most important president, A.
Whitney Griswold, stoutly resisted the idea of having a business school,
knowing it did not jibe well with a liberal education. He was probably
right: if we look to Harvard, the home of businessschoolism, we contemplate
a university that has become a huge business, sitting on a huge endowment
and not necessarily accomplishing the ends of a city on a hill.
Well, Yale went on to create a business school, but made the training of
public servants a part of its mission. The "public" part has sort of melted
away, however, as part of Yale's effort to get into the top ranks of
That is our quandary as a society. How do we reconcile niceness and
necessity, marketplace realities and humanity?
Corporations are making some halting steps to bring the two together. BP, an
old-line oil company, has tried to refashion itself as an environmentally
concerned "green" company. The wholesale stationers we use for our supplies
gives us recycling bags in which to return spent cartridges from our
multitude of printers and copiers. Out of enlightened self-interest, several
companies have realized that systematic education and training is now an
everyday part of business. We hope we may see more of this--to minister to
the whole man while dealing with economic man.
New Concept of the Corporation. Drucker's seminal book in the U.S.
was Concept of the Corporation, based on work at GM. We need a
rewriting. That is, the corporation has to be reinvented to do different
work, take on additional aims, and reconcile itself with a much more
connected and more crowded world. As the sometimes acerbic one-time mayor of
New York Ed Koch was wont to say, "It is time to be nicey nicey."
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