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The one missing ingredient to your strategy for the future: the past


I married into a wonderful Italian family that loves nothing more than telling (and retelling) stories about the past. They light up the dining room like holiday lights. There is a particularly famous one about my wife when she was very young and at a restaurant.

She had placed her order and the waiter was taking too long. Famously she stood on her chair and cried out, "Don't they know I'm hungry!!" When the story is told, we all repeat the line in unison. It's mainly a funny story that we enjoy revisiting, one of many we can pull up from the great well of family history. But it is also instructive. When my wife is hungry, she needs to eat and delay will not be tolerated. This is very helpful information.

There is insight in history: family history but also organizational history. But many might be missing the connection, especially when it comes to strategy formation. We are working on a new sustainability strategy for our school which includes a new center. As part of this visioning work, I have taken time to look backward.

The trouble with being "forward-looking"

The tendency to invest more our focus on the future is understandable. Especially in the U.S., the mainstream culture applauds the future and mainly discounts the past. That is painting with a broad brush but in general it is true. And many working in sustainability are predisposed to this future orientation. We even label certain companies with the compliment of being "forward-looking". What would it mean to be a "backward-looking" company! We have visions of "disruptive innovation" and "changing the narrative" and even like to declare that things are "broken": the budgeting process, energy management, quarterly reporting, decision-making systems, compensation, silos, etc.

This mentality can lead, perhaps unintentionally, to throwing out the old for the sake of the new.

The Power in the Past

There can be power in plumbing the depths of your company's past to find clues; clues to values, culture, intention, and mission. Like the story of my wife at the restaurant, these stories can yield important insights. The past is very much still present, so it behooves those of us interested in working for change to learn it. These clues can point to specific, unique approaches to widening the business aperture to include social and environmental considerations.

As we in sustainability work with colleagues and leaders on a new future, we might find real power by linking it to the past.

And here is why this can be so powerful: most people resist change, but not when it comes dressed in history.

I was doing some digging around recently and began to learn more about the history of where I work. This work will continue for years to come but already, I have picked up some great clues.

A Short History of the Smeal College of Business

Though his family was extremely poor, Frank Smeal was said to have dressed like a banker every day: black suit, white shirt and tie. With his mother’s encouragement, he would hitch-hike every day five miles to the new Penn State Dubois campus.

It was the late 1930s and world war was looming. At night, families were asked to have their lights out; meager protection from distant threats. Students like Frank had to put clothes over their light bulbs so they would be allowed to still read at night. Then he would be up the next day, donning again the suit and facing again the five-mile journey.

Around fifty years later, in 1990, Mary Jean and Frank Smeal gave Penn State $10 million, then the largest gift in the institution’s history. Frank had completed an illustrious career at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Guaranty Trust (now part of JP Morgan). Their gift named the business school, created five endowed faculty chairs as well as a separate endowment for program excellence, and launched a new era for the Smeal School of Business.

My notes from first reading of our history:

  • Frank worked in finance, municipal bonds in particular, and he was instrumental in helping New York City weather a financial crisis in the 1970s - our work in sustainable finance takes on special significance given this aspect of our past

  • Mary Jean and Frank's gifts to Penn State spanned business, literature and the arts - a respect for other disciplines and colleges; an interdisciplinary approach, crucial for work in sustainability, has some roots in our history

  • Frank's qualities of determination, hard-work and generosity - such qualities will be needed as we chart a new course, building on our past, to evolve business education and research

Finally, history provides not just insights but a measuring rod. When Frank Smeal was going to school there were about 2 billion people in the world; there are now 7.6 billion. The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere was around 300 ppm and it now has exceeded 406 ppm. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was 260 during his time and is regularly over 26,000; the global GDP was around $1 trillion and has reached $76 trillion today.

What does all this mean for Smeal College of Business and our future strategy for sustainability? That's not clear. But these are very good ingredients for what we are cooking up. Of that, I have no doubt.

Seven Tips for Getting History on Your Side (John Seaman and George Smith, Harvard Business Review, 2012)

1. Visit your corporate archives—or begin compiling them. Any effort to understand or leverage your company history is only as good as the raw materials—documents, images, and artifacts—you have at your disposal.

2. Enrich your archives with interviews of departing executives and long-tenured employees—especially the outlaws and the iconoclasts. Such interviews flesh out the written record, which often omits the rationale for decisions or fails to note what might turn out to be important ideas and events.

3. Survey what is known and understood about the company’s history and values. This will help you separate fact from fiction, identify the missing pieces you need to address, and begin to understand how history shapes perceptions about the company today.

4. Make the history—of people, products, and brands—accessible. Use today’s rich media not only to capture stories about the company’s past, but also to engage audiences inside and outside in an ongoing dialogue about the meaning of that past for the company’s work.

5. Conduct postmortems on major projects and initiatives—successful or otherwise. Recognize that you can learn as much from failure as from success.

6. Seek historical perspective before every major decision, whether it involves a new strategy, a major acquisition or investment, or a new marketing campaign or communications initiative.

7. Talk at every opportunity about the history—charismatic leaders, breakthrough innovations, decisive impacts—and what it says about the company you are today or want to become.

Would love to hear how you have used history to inform your work.

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