Breaks Away: Vicki TenHaken

sabbatical (n): a break from customary work to acquire new skills or knowledge, traditionally occurring every seventh year

Breaks Away: Sabbatical Stories of Hope
Each academic year, a number of Hope faculty take sabbatical leaves away from the college, submersing themselves for extended periods of time into their favored fields of inquiry. If viewed from above and all together, those fields would look like a calico landscape, so varied and colorful is the topography of their collective research, writing, and creative pursuits. Offering restoration and adventure both, sabbaticals are a bit like information and imagination transfusions. These breaks away from normal classroom and committee work give Hope academicians a boost to reinforce and revitalize their teaching and scholarship.

What is the best indicator of excellence in business? Sales figures? Consumer satisfaction? Innovation? Those are all good measures of successful business performance, to be sure. The one marker that includes them all, though, the one that ultimately decides if a company has good sales figures, consumer satisfaction and innovation is… survival.

TenHaken
Vicki TenHaken, professor of management

Corporate longevity captivates Vicki TenHaken, professor of management, who spent much of her sabbatical writing a book about why America’s 100-plus year-old companies have endured wars, recessions, a Great Depression and an ever-fickle U.S. marketplace. It’s a favored topic of inquiry that she can trace back to two sources: her first career and 25 years spent in corporate leadership at two companies — General Electric and Herman Miller — that have withstood the balanced-book test of time, and her introduction to Makoto Kanda of Meiji Gakuin University who conducts research on the same topic in Japan.

TenHaken learned of Kanda’s work while leading a Hope College May Term at MGU in 2004. She was so intrigued that, a year later, she wrote and was awarded a GLCA grant to further study his surveying, qualitative methodology in learning how over 20,000 shinishe — meaning old, traditional, valued companies in Japanese — have kept their doors open for so long. What she has found about 1,000, long-term U.S. companies after over five years of data collection — culminating with that book she wrote entitled Lessons from Century Club Companies: Managing for Long-Term Success to be published in 2016 — is mostly congruent with what Kanda has found about Japanese ones, except in one way: Old Japanese companies have a specific development plan in place for their next CEOs. This is not often the case for American companies.

“Sometimes relationship building may have no immediate economic benefit but the (enduring) companies continue to prioritize it because they just know it is the right thing to do.” — Vicki TenHaken

Still, enduring corporate success — whether in Japan or the United States — has five common behaviors at its bottom-line, and three of them have to do with relationships. TenHaken’s blog, How Old Companies Survive, tell of those practices in detail. She says the good news is that the super majority of enduring enterprises strongly believe these practices have led to their longevity. The bad news is that those strong beliefs are typically not taught in MBA programs. But good news again: TenHaken teaches about those practices in her management seminar for majors at Hope.

“Relationship-building is a high priority for older companies and they are interlocking in nature, between employees, customers, suppliers, the community in which they (the companies) live,” says TenHaken. “Sometimes relationship-building may have no immediate economic benefit but the (enduring) companies continue to prioritize it because they just know it is the right thing to do.”

Additionally, TenHaken found a correlation between long-term corporate success and managing for environmental sustainability. On Corporate Knight’s list of most environmentally responsible firms, 40 percent of the U.S. companies were over 100 years old. TenHaken isn’t sure yet if their motivation flows from an overall stewardship mentality, “or, it could be that they are just generally frugal,” she says.

That is a topic for another study, next up on her research agenda. Like the century-old companies she researches, TenHaken plans to continue to add to the broader conversation of how to succeed in business while really trying.

Vicki TenHaken is a professor of management in the Department of Economics, Management, and Accounting and the Ruch Director of the Baker Scholar Program at Hope College.

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