The Ron Brown Awards
Robert M. Tomasko
[This is a revised version of an op-ed article published in The New York Times on April 21, 1996]
America has suffered a great loss with the tragic death of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. He was an extraordinarily effective ambassador for our country's business community. His vigorous promotion of international trade also made the Commerce Department a key player in foreign policy. Brown believed that open markets and free trade are essential catalysts for social change and could help bring democratic reforms to closed societies. He will be missed.
What better way to commemorate his life and belief that business be a force for good in the world than to establish an award, granted as a parallel to the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Awards, that recognizes America's top exporters and most thoughtful, responsible overseas investors.
Well managed, prestigious national incentives, like the Baldrige, are proven tools to encourage positive corporate behavior. Managers like to compete with each other; managers do what gets measured. While it is important to hold business accountable for its missteps - such as the press recently has done about excessive downsizing - the impact of such knuckle-slapping is usually short-lived. Shining the limelight on positive corporate role models is much more likely to produce lasting change.
Not every company is downsizing; many are fueling job growth through what Ron Brown made his personal mission, the selling of American-made goods and services abroad. More businesses need to move on the path Brown blazed.
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Companies take the Baldrige Awards seriously. They have had a ripple-effects on corporate behavior far beyond the role models they spotlight. While the issue the Baldriges focuses on, quality, is vital, it is no longer sufficient. Fixing everything that deviates from standards - what quality improvement efforts are all about - has become a minimum requirement for businesses today. It is the entry ticket into the global competitive arena, but having high quality no longer guarantees a business will prevail.
That's where Ron Brown's mission comes it. His tenure as Commerce Secretary was marked by a total commitment to American companies growing their top lines through full participation in the world's markets. Growth opportunities for many American businesses are limited in the saturated domestic markets they compete in. Revenue and earnings in the next decade - if they are to come at all - must be driven more by exports and international growth than profit-less struggles for a bigger piece of the crowded U.S. market.
Some American companies are already superstars in the world's market: Coca-Cola is ubiquitous; Boeing and General Electric are export leaders; Ford and Levi Strauss champions of global sourcing. But these are the exceptions, rather than the rule. Most U.S. businesses have had the luxury of operating in a big and growing domestic market. Now growth has slowed and, U.S. businesses' market shares are threatened by tough, global-minded Asian, European and Latin American competitors.
American business needed to catch-up on the quality front in the mid-1980s. The Baldrige Award played a key role in this happening - show casing American quality success stories, highlighting exemplary companies whose practices others could imitate. Today U.S. business needs to learn from its leaders in the global economy just as it did from its quality champions. That would be the purpose of the Brown Awards. Not too long ago the words "Made in America" were a warning of poor quality. The Baldriges helped renew American business' attention to good workmanship. Now that many American products meet or exceed world class standards, it's time - with the assist of the Brown's - for this label to be proudly carried throughout the globe.
Ron Brown also knew such growth carried with it a recognition of corporate social responsibilities - to host countries laws, consumers and the emerging consensus about global issues such as pollution and child labor. He knew businesses' long term interests are best served by governments founded on the rule of law and accepting of internationally agreed on standards of conduct. Commerce flourishes when there is a predictable legal framework and an independent judiciary. Brown promoted American business expansion. He also promoted global standards of human rights and child labor, and he knew how intertwined these issues ultimately can become. Brown died while shepherding a group of executives looking for commercial opportunities that would also serve a critical social purpose: rebuilding the war-torn nations that once were Yugoslavia.
Issues of social responsibility are seldom discussed in the same breath with those related to profits and business expansion. This is counterproductive - they need to be, and Ron Brown knew this. Today the Commerce Department provides some limited public recognition for America's top exporters, but this is a weak effort compared to the limelight provided from the Baldrige Awards. The Clinton administration has also proposed a set of voluntary social responsibility guidelines for companies investing in the global marketplace, and a prize to be given to those best at carrying them out. Unfortunately, this model code has received a lukewarm-at-best reception from many of the companies whose behavior it intended to shape.
Both these efforts are in need of invigoration. It does not make good sense for either to stand alone. Cries for increased social responsibility without a connection to profitable business activity are a hollow hope. Global expansion with reference to a framework for social responsibility is not sustainable. ITT found this out in the 1970s and Shell is today. Combining the awards, devising a process for selecting recipients along the stringent lines of what is done for the Baldriges, and adding the appropriate limelight and prestige make a lot of sense.
A joint business-government prize of this kind would help to keep Secretary Brown's vision and spirit alive. The Baldrige recognizes businesses' best efforts at improving internal operations. Let the Brown awards go to the American companies - small and large - that fuel our country's growth through responsible prowess in the global marketplace. If the history of the Baldrige awards is a fair guide, the Brown's might be just the catalyst American business leaders need to turn their sights outward, toward sustainable growth in the world's emerging markets.
© Robert M. Tomasko 2002
On May 17, 1996 President Clinton announced the creation of the "Ron Brown Corporate Citizenship Award."
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