07/23/2010 03:33 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Building Blocks of Corporate Statesmanship

Jørgen Vig Knudstorp is not a household name in America. And those few who may know him probably can't pronounce his name. Or remember how to spell it. But there are millions of American children and parents who know the company he runs and use his products every day. Mr. Vig Knudstorp is the CEO of the Danish-based children's company we know as LEGO.

As an educational "toy," the value of the LEGO building blocks has been phenomenal. What the company, now more than 80-years-old, calls the LEGO system of play -- "learning through LEGO" -- considers young children as role models for our future and as creative problem-solvers. Their CEO is quite sincere when he says that what the company really cares about is inspiring the young people who will build our tomorrow.

Is this just more corporate happy talk? Hardly. The founding CEO of Google, Larry Page, has called LEGO the most important technology he has encountered: those little blocks taught him literally how to think digitally and algorithmically. LEGO is a company that is all about play - about exploring the connections between creative play and learning, about approaching play as a catalyst for learning. The company is focused on the future -- not short-term, but long-term.

Over the last two years, I have had the pleasure of spending time with Mr. Vig Knudstorp on three continents: Europe, North America, and, last month, South America - at an early education forum in Sao Paulo, Brazil. With support from the Bernard Van Leer Foundation in The Hague, the Committee for Economic Development, along with LEGO Education, United Way Brasil, Conselho Empresarial da America Latina, Todos Pela Educação, and Instituto para o Desenvolvimento do Investimento Social, co-sponsored a day-long forum for Brazilian business leaders about the important economic returns associated with public and private investments in early education. Our goal was to increase the number of Brazilian business leaders who support expanded investments in early childhood education.

After the conference ended, I spent part of the next day with Vig Knudstorp and a LEGO team visiting a school supported by the company in one of the more than 1,500 slums ("favelas") found throughout Sao Paulo, a city with more than 19 million residents. LEGO Education has an approach called "Brick by Brick: The Brazil We Want" that is working with dozens of schools throughout the country to improve education. The school we visited is in "Heliopolis," Sao Paulo's second largest favela and home to some 120,000 people.

This trip was Vig Knudstorp's first visit to Brazil -- but certainly not his last. LEGO's commitment is tangible - not just because of the LEGO blocks we saw the children playing with but also in the impact LEGO is having among these very poor children and their families. One could see hope, excitement, pride - and, yes, creativity.

In one classroom, the students showed us an award they had won last year for a creative LEGO design. The award itself was a trophy made from LEGOs, and it rested on a LEGO stand. Two of the young children proudly presented it to the LEGO CEO. Vig Knudstorp reached into his pocket and took out his business card -- something unique among global CEOs, I suspect: his business card is a little LEGO figure of himself. (You can change his hair, if you like, and move his arms and legs. His name is on the front; his personal e-mail address is on the back. If you write to him, he'll write you back.) He adjusted the arms on his "card" so that they were raised up, to the sky, and then he gently placed the little figure on the stand so that it was facing the award -- arms raised in celebration and joy at the children's success. It was a moment with these children that was unforgettable.

In his remarks the previous day at the forum, Vig Knudstorp reflected on what his company's efforts might mean to a broader, international business community. He made three points.

  • First, in older, industrial societies, people went to work and mostly did what they were told. Those days are over: the workforce of today and of the future will not emphasize obedience but, instead creativity, and a passion for what workers do. This workforce will be much more logical, systematic, and analytical.

  • Second, an IBM survey of some 1,500 global CEOs noted that the biggest challenges they faced had to do with the ability of their organizations to relate to diverse corporate stakeholders; the ability to foster "dexterous" organizations that could act quickly, change as needed, and be self-correcting in a bottoms-up rather than top-down approach; and the ability to generate creativity throughout all aspects of a company's business.
  • Third, Vig Knudstorp sees fundamentally two types of companies that will exist in our future: companies that essentially work for themselves and companies that focus not on what they make but on "why" they make it. The former, he says, often put the cart before the horse, whereas the latter consider, as part of their operations, the impact they have on the environment, their communities, and their countries. Focusing on an issue such as early childhood education offers companies and their leaders a great "why" instead of just focusing on what companies and business leaders do for themselves. Moreover, in his view, the most talented employees in the future will prefer to work for companies that have a strong "why."
  • Are there lessons from this Dane and his extraordinary company for American business and its CEOs? There are many: about long-term investments in education and the workforce, about the values that animate a corporate environment, about encouraging creativity instead of "groupthink," about building self-correcting mechanisms inside companies that don't wait for the regulator to step in once the bubble has burst, and about creating a sense of purpose that goes beyond quarterly earnings reports and compensation. Corporate America right now has a terrible perception among the American public at large. The building blocks for turning around this situation are right there, before our eyes.

    Charles Kolb served in the first Bush White House from 1990-1992 and as General Counsel of United Way of America from 1992-1997. He is now President of the Committee for Economic Development in Washington, D.C. The views in this article are solely the author's.