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Business Marches On

In July, Woolworth announced it was closing its 400 remaining five-and-dimes, Montgomery Ward filed for bankruptcy, Apple dismissed the chief …

In July, Woolworth announced it was closing its 400 remaining five-and-dimes, Montgomery Ward filed for bankruptcy, Apple dismissed the chief executive it had hired with great fanfare 17 months earlier, AT&T hung up on Bob Allen’s designated replacement, and the Dow hit 8000. Reading about the Woolworth move on the train one morning, I turned to a friend across the aisle-a trust-and-estates attorney who 20 years ago was pursuing a career in music-to comment on the passing of an American icon. “You know,” she said, “it’s really becoming an entirely different world than the one we grew up in.”

Her words resonated with particular clarity because I’ve been so entrenched, these last few months, in putting together this 20th anniversary commemorative issue.

Change, after all, is sort of like aging. Unless you avoid looking in the mirror every day, you  don’t really notice you’re not 25 anymore. Unless you steep yourself in clippings from old publications, in thinking and talking about the way things were, you don’t really appreciate just how different the world has become-regardless of how often you repeat the phrase “change management.”

Consider, for example, the burning issues covered in the following collection of articles dredged out of the library as background for this issue:

In August 1977, Fortune announced that “the basic attractions of overseas investments have vanished.” The multinationals, the magazine claimed, were “showing signs of decay.”

Continually bested by local competition, they were finding they had nothing new to offer. Those that succeeded did so in a climate where “the world glowers at them ever more menacingly, but has not yet found a way of dispensing with their services.” It is obvious, Fortune concluded, “that American business is losing its taste for foreign adventure.”

In March 1977, Business Week reported on the Kentucky-based Women and Employment Project, a group that visited companies struggling to diversify their work force. The group performed psychodramas showing how male employees might react to working alongside women. Later in the year, Forbes marveled at the fact that “the tide of women flowing from the home to the office and workshop is relentless” and quoted Columbia University professor EliGinzberg, a noted specialist on human resources, who called this trend “the single most outstanding phenomenon of our century.” While Ginzberg worried about the impact the trend might eventually have on the physical health of these working women and the psychological health of their children, he declared that “the long-term implications” of women moving so dramatically into the workplace “are absolutely unchartable.”

Reporting on fear and loathing in an airline industry scared to death by a bipartisan push for deregulation,

Fortune, in August 1977, wrote that the airlines believed deregulation “would be catastrophic,” resulting in “less frequent and dependable service, less comfort for passengers, and, eventually, slimmer margins of safety.”

Earlier in the year, Fortune had discussed a “new species of highly specialized consulting firms…known in the doublespeak world of consulting as ‘out-placement’ or ‘de-hiring’ firms.” While corporations that brought in “de-hirers” ultimately saved money when severed employees found new jobs more quickly, they waded in difficult waters “when the chief executive himself is getting the boot.”

And Fortune’s coverage of new trends in management also included a visit to Manhattan‘s Eltra Corp., a company that was resisting “the use of enormous central staff, labyrinthine reporting procedures, and huge mounds of computer data…to gain some means of control over their far-flung operations.” Eltra’s method? “Plain old-fashioned face-to-face contact,” which translated as frequent visits by the chief executive to the company’s various installations, where he “subjected managers to meticulous scrutiny.”

Hindsight, of course, is a wonderful tool. But the knowing smiles with which these blasts from the past are inevitably greeted might fade quickly if you transport yourself forward to 2017 and imagine the grins with which your successors might read of today’s vexing issues.

Unless, of course, you put all this in the context of making progress. The sturm and drang through which we traveled to create a more diverse, less hierarchical workplace, for example, has, unarguably, changed the complexion of corporate America for the better.

Though problems still exist, though a new debate on affirmative action is raging, though many women have, in fact, opted out of the maelstrom and charted their own paths, the opportunities are greater, and the workplace is becoming a more balanced, life-friendly place.

But the effect of all this change we’ve been managing obviously extends far beyond the question of diversity and the search for balance between work and life. It’s evident in the global footprints of so many corporations. It’s evident in a host of transforming technologies. It’s evident in the inability of companies like Woolworth to compete with a growing array of category busters. It’s evident in the impatience with which boards greet faltering chief executives. It’s evident everywhere, and it’s forced all workers, and particularly chief executives, to cast aside all manner of preconceptions.

Mike Cook, chief executive of Deloitte & Touche, may have summed it up best during the roundtable held for this special issue. “I am in a position today,” he said, “where I am absolutely dependent on the ability to listen to people who will tell me things that are entirely different from my own personal experience.” That, perhaps, is the point of boarding this time machine. The world, and business, have marched on. To avoid being left behind, it’s useful to understand where we’ve been-and where we’re heading. To start the tour, turn the page.


Michael Winkleman, Chief Executive’s senior vice president for editorial operations and production, is the editor of this commemorative issue.

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