Author’s Note: While most of the talk following this year’s Super Bowl had to do with commercials and the lighting issues at the Superdome, I was reminded of the Big Game that took place seven years ago in Detroit. It’s not the winning team that I recall when I think back on it, it’s the people who made that day happen in our city. The following essay is something I wrote following Super Bowl XL. I share it with you now because I believe what I wrote then is even more true today.
Three days before Super Bowl XL, I was walking across Woodward Avenue just as the Motown Winter Blast was getting ready to launch in the heart of downtown Detroit. As I scanned the vibrancy of activity, I noticed a commanding presence walking down the middle of Woodward — looking with a hawk’s eye — pointing out to those with him the loose ends that needed to be tied up: a garbage bag just sitting there waiting for attention, a side street not fully blocked off, an uncovered cable and a piece of drifting paper. The man in the red, white, and blue Super Bowl XL coat directing others was Roger Penske.
When I was in college, I distinctly remember learning about the Hawthorne Effect: an experiment conducted by Harvard Business School professor Elton Mayo at the Hawthorne Plant of the Western Electric Company in Cicero, Illinois. Mayo and his team conducted a series of studies on the productivity of some factory workers by manipulating various conditions such as pay, lighting levels and breaks.
Overall, the group’s productivity did increase, but researchers concluded that the reason for this was due to the fact that the workers were being observed by the researchers.
When I saw Roger Penske that day, with the city shining and our performance at an all-time high — I thought of how Roger created a “Hawthorne Effect” for the region. Someone was watching. Someone was paying attention. Hence, our expectations of ourselves and our performance improved. Our version of Hawthorne became the Penske Effect.
There are stories now of individuals getting phone calls from Roger Penske at all hours of the day and night prior to Super Bowl XL to get something corrected. Trash on an exit ramp into the city needed to get picked up. Equipment was needed to paint light posts or cover graffiti. There was always the sense for those involved that someone — in this case Roger Penske — was paying attention to not just the big things, but to the very details that mattered. Performance mattered. High expectations were set. All were accountable.
We all recognize that getting ready for an event like the Super Bowl is one thing. Living that discipline every day is another — just like the household pulling it together for a graduation party is very different than keeping the house just so when guests aren’t due in the next hour.
Duplicating the Penske Effect, however, is not the responsibility of one citizen among 4 million-plus residents. Rather, it is our collective responsibility. Progress won’t rest with just one mayor, county executive, corporate leader, civic executive or local resident, though they each carry an important leadership accountability. When a region’s sense is that no one is watching or paying attention, our everyday normal may not be putting our personal best effort forward. When we think the problem or responsibility for progress rests out there or over there, or even with another person, then that in fact is usually the problem.
The Penske Effect shows us we can get the house ready when company is coming. The real work begins now, to set the expectation level at the same height for ourselves. Company might not be coming, but we all ought to expect for ourselves the same type of performance as what occurred during Super Bowl XL.
In my estimation, the recent announcement by the Downtown Development Authority that Roger Penske has agreed to chair the organization and is going to focus on CLEAN is brilliant. Why? Focus, focus, focus. There are a thousand things that need attention, but the recent decision by Roger Penske demonstrates the need to start with a baseline of expectation and work from there. Focus on something that can get accomplished and build upon that. There was great debate among civic leaders to look at larger and wider projects for Roger Penske’s next engagement — the Summer Olympics, for example. From my lens, let’s do the right, smart things well. In this case — SMALL IS BIG. Then, and only then, will we be in the position to build upon those strengths for larger, more complicated projects.
The question ought not be “What is Roger going to do for the city or region?” Rather, what are the vital few things we as a region can get focused around and make progress? The work ahead isn’t about writing the next chapter of the old story, but rather for us to begin to write the new story. Maybe as Roger Penske would say, “Southeastern Michigan, start your engines.”