November 18, 2014

Corning CEO: Companies Should Collaborate, Focus on the ‘Why’

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Wendell P. Weeks, chair and chief executive officer of Corning, Inc. — a manufacturer of glass and other materials — spoke to Cornellians about sustaining institutions in the face of technological innovation at a lecture in Gates Hall Monday.

Weeks’ lecture focused on the term “creative destruction,” coined by economist Joseph Schumpeter, which refers to the continuous process in which old industries are destroyed and new ones are created as a consequence of technological innovation, according to Weeks.

Weeks said institutions are important because of their role in fulfilling fundamental human needs.

“The highest satisfaction people get is not from getting rich but from serving others,” Weeks said. “One of the best ways to do that is through institutions.”

Weeks also said that most great things in history were accomplished by “groups, teams and institutions” rather than by individuals.

“Death scares the hell out of us,” he said. “Institutions are one of the few ways we have of beating the reaper since what you do in your life can live beyond you.”

Although Weeks said the process of sustaining institutions has become increasingly difficult in a world of creative destruction, he emphasized Schumpeter’s belief that incessant creative destruction was an essential part of capitalism.

Weeks said that Corning — which has been listed on the S&P 500 since the index’s introduction in 1957 — is no exception to this environment of creative destruction.

“Of the 500 companies listed on the S&P 500 in 2004, only 300 remain today,” Weeks said. “Even people who are successful through [certain] time periods are experiencing the enormous power of creative destruction.”

Weeks said that in order to sustain institutions in a world of creative destruction, it is important for companies to understand why their particular institutions were originally created.

“Most people know ‘what’ they do in their company,” Weeks said. “Even fewer people know ‘how’ a company or institution actually does what they do. It’s very rare that people find their ‘why,’ and it’s one of the reasons why most institutions don’t last.”

Weeks added that companies need to organize and create frameworks around the “why.”

“Nothing else matters,” he said. “Companies forget this all the time.”

Weeks ended his lecture by suggesting that companies collaborate more often with other companies that share the same vision.

“You want to invite others to your ‘why’ vision to give it vibrancy and joy,” Weeks said.

The event was a part of the annual Lewis H. Durland Memorial Lecture Series and was held under the banner of the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management.

Each year, the dean of the school invites a distinguished business leader to campus to meet with students and faculty members and to deliver a major address. In the past, the Johnson School of Management has invited William C. Weldon, former chair and CEO of Johnson and Johnson, and Irene Rosenfeld ’75 M.S. ’77 Ph.D. ’80, former CEO of Kraft Foods.