Editor's Page -- Of CEOs And Dockworkers

Nov. 1, 2002
Who delivers more value to the business equation?

Maybe it's just me, but I'm beginning to see a lot of similarities between the two powerful groups now in the news battling the inevitable winds of change: the West Coast dockworkers and U.S. CEOs. Both groups, according to my unscientific survey of just bringing up the topic with whomever I happen to be talking to -- go ahead, try it yourself -- earn the enmity and envy of your average person for:

  • extracting untold, unacceptable wages and benefits for the jobs they do;
  • threatening to bring down the American Economy through their maneuvering to maintain and grow their piece of the economic pie;
  • seeking to stop anything that threatens to change their existing way of life now that their plush lifestyle has been exposed to public scrutiny; and
  • holding jobs that, by their nature, are difficult to outsource, especially to low-wage countries.

True, you'll find the responses tend to break pretty much along political party and socioeconomic lines. Liberals and blue-collar workers are more likely to defend the dockworkers and curse CEOs. Conservatives lean toward defending the CEOs and denigrating unions. Many college-educated, white-collar workers are appalled to find that a person who might have only a high school diploma has the temerity to demand -- and the wherewithal to get -- a wage and benefits package that dwarfs what their hard-earned degrees have garnered.

But of course we all know the difference between the dockworker and the CEO -- it's the value-added, or I should say, perceived value-added -- that each brings to the business equation. For as we savvy consumers and business insiders know, we often pay more for things we think are worth more, even when we know, deep down inside, they're not.

I contend that we overvalue the CEO, while undervaluing the skilled production employee; we overvalue a college education while undervaluing on-the-job training and skills learned in the school of hard knocks; and we overvalue strategic decision making, while undervaluing operational expertise.

In the '90s we took this to the extreme by overvaluing knowledge in the form of The Great Idea to a point where we had an idea bubble. We overvalued and over-rewarded people who had nothing more than an idea that failed the test of execution.

Yes, we live in the information age and must reward knowledge, insight, ideas. But we cannot afford to continue to marginalize the knowledge worker who does not fit the narrow definition of the formally educated management strategist or whiz-kid entreprenuer with great ideas.

We need to tap into, recognize and reward the knowledge of the skilled operations employees who, our Best Plants research tells us, have the ability to unlock billions of dollars of productivity improvements -- if only the high-level executives were smart enough to ask.

Patricia Panchak is IW's editor-in-chief. She is based in Cleveland.

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