I’m Laurie Bassi, CEO and co-founder of McBassi & Company. The path toward our work at McBassi started over three decades ago with a conversation I had in a steel mill that fundamentally changed the direction of my career. And even my life.
In those days, I was a young assistant professor of economics at Georgetown University. With my newly minted Ph.D. from Princeton in hand, I understood the rules of the game for someone in my position. First among them was publish or perish. Equally important was to do so in a way that was respected and valued by my profession – by doing research and publishing papers in prestigious journals based on complex mathematical modeling and sophisticated econometric analysis. I became totally immersed in my field and this perspective. I came to view the world and the people in it through a lens of simultaneous structural equations and elaborate statistical methodologies.
And then one day in 1988, I found myself in a steel mill in western Maryland. I was there interviewing workers about the “learning environment” at the mill. These interviews were a component of a well-funded research project I was fortunate to be working on – one that held the promise of enabling me to publish some very good papers. My immediate task was to translate the findings of my interviews with workers into quantitative, coded data. It was definitely a “stretch assignment” for me, because truth be told, although I was trained as a labor economist, I had never been in a workplace anything like this before.
This steel mill was a pretty tough place. It was hot – probably at least in the low 90s – dirty, noisy, and dangerous. Workers were busy managing the flow of red-hot, molten metal as it moved between various pieces of massive processing machinery. And there I was in my neatly pressed pant suit, with a tasteful purse on my shoulder, and clip board and Cross pen in hand – interviewing workers in steel-toed boots, hard hats, work clothes covered in grime, with sweat running down their sooty faces. They were compliant and polite as I took them through one question after another about the extent and usefulness of the (virtually nonexistent) learning opportunities available to them through their work.
In the very last interview, I apparently asked one question too many. In a very respectful tone of voice, the fellow I was interviewing finally said to me, “Look lady, I can sum it up for you like this. I go home at the end of every day, whupped, tired, and disgusted.”
That pretty much ended the interview – there was really nothing left to say. He thanked me for my interest, and I thanked him for his time.
As I drove home that night, his words played over and over again in my mind. I shared them with my husband, and I thought about them the next day and the day after. The raw honesty of what he said didn’t fit neatly into my data coding scheme, and I understood that no system of equations – no matter how sophisticated or elegant – could capture the grim reality this gentleman had shared with me.
Over the course of the weeks and months that followed, I began to think very differently about my work. It was no longer an academic exercise that would help me publish papers and get tenure. It was much more important than that. It was about the quality of people’s lives, and how they are shaped for good or for ill by their places of work. I also came to understand the profound effects our work places have on our lives outside of work, and indeed, the very society in which we live.
That conversation set me on a journey that ultimately led to my work today, to the founding of McBassi & Company, and to our 2011 book Good Company.
I still believe in the power of investigation and in the value of seeking truths that aren’t immediately obvious – but now I also understand, far better than I once did, the potentially huge positive effects that can come from making that sort of quest in a workplace.
Our work is focused on identifying “all-win” solutions: those that help improve an organization’s profitability and create new work and learning opportunities for employees within a positive work environment. We seek answers that can have positive effects on the lives of every single person touched by an organization, all the way from front-line employees to customers, from boards of directors to investors.