Sustaining Institutions in a World Focused on Short-Term Performance

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Corning Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Wendell Weeks told an audience of 200 senior executives, reporters, academics, and authors, “Achieving something strategic, significant, and sustainable almost always takes time.” Weeks was the keynote speaker at the Financial Times/McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award 2105 in New York, where he discussed the value of longevity in a world that’s increasingly focused on short-term performance.

Weeks shared a story from Corning’s history about the development of low-loss optical fiber, which he described as a “highly speculative” project. It took approximately four years of research before scientists made the pivotal breakthrough in 1970, and then another two decades for the technology to proliferate. Weeks remarked, “That life-changing invention would not have been possible without a long-term focus and sustained investment.” He added, “That pattern has repeated itself throughout Corning’s history. For example, we lost money on LCD glass for 14 years before it became an overnight success. Today, that business accounts for about 65 percent of Corning’s profits.”

Weeks noted that the focus on quarterly earnings is pressuring many executives to focus on incremental product improvements and rapid pay-offs, while under-investing in the big, disruptive innovations that drive growth and increase productivity.  He also underscored the importance of serving the interests of all stakeholders—employees, suppliers, customers, and communities. He said, “I believe we can create a more balanced approach between near-term payoffs and long-term investment.”

"Achieving something strategic, significant, and sustainable almost always takes time." - Wendell Weeks, Corning Chairman and CEO

Acknowledging that companies must increase their agility as the pace of the world accelerates, Weeks said, “We need to find the right balance between increasing our clock-speed and maintaining our commitment to take on the big challenges and place the big bets.” He noted that leaders are responsible for distinguishing between what must evolve and what must endure within their organizations. He encouraged leaders to ask, “How do we continually create better versions of ourselves?”

Weeks encouraged investors to expand their notion of value and reminded them that the greatest value creation often comes from longer-term bets. He also called upon directors and trustees to take time to understand an organization’s mission, hold leaders accountable for advancing it, and support them through volatility. Finally, he asked individuals to ask what kind of world they want, what kind of organizations are creating that world, and what sacrifices they refuse to make.

“Otherwise, we could lose our opportunity to tackle challenges that drive the greatest progress and improve our quality of life,” said Weeks. “And we could find ourselves wondering whether the price of our gains was worth the cost of our losses.”

Read Weeks’ full speech here.