It has always been somewhat of an obsession for Canadians, most of whom are strung like a ribbon four thousand miles wide and a hundred miles thick along the US border. When your closest neighbor (or “neighbour” in our variation on the spelling) is more than 10 times your size in economic and population heft, to “punch above your weight” becomes more than a passing fad. It is nearly a mantra. We Canadians are always looking for ways to influence outcomes that seem, on the face of it at least, beyond our scale to effect. It is fitting then, for this Canadian, albeit a once reluctantly transplanted Brit, to address the issues of reach that far exceed our grasp.
I found it quite sobering as an MBA student in what now seems like another age to discover that I was unfit for even the most rudimentary of management tasks. Clearly, and despite good academic success, I was to be far more likely to succeed if I spared my unsuspecting future direct-reports the mis-shapen habits of my love of ambiguity and infinite variety – two of the hallmarks of an ineffective manager who offered little clarity and majored in inconsistency. And so I wisely veered off into the fruitful landscape of the peripatetic management consultant who after nearly thirty years of practice is now completely unemployable in any traditional sense. The very prospect of full-time work with excellent benefits, once offered by a client CEO, so filled me with horror because it meant I would have been confined to leveraging my talents such as they are within the confines of a single organization!
So, if you are thinking that you are hardly in a sufficient position to influence the movement of your employer towards what I have called “the purposeful enterprise”, I share your sense of powerlessness. It is easy to imagine that only senior executives really have the power to materially change the course of the organizations which they lead. Since I have sat with more than a few of them over the years, and labored alongside them to bring about needed change, I can attest to the illusion of such a perspective. Business organizations and their cultures are like freight trains. It is hard to get them to even slightly change direction, and nearly impossible stop them and go another way altogether.
Some years ago, I heard a CEO describing his capacity to wield real influence over the global organization he led like this, “it is like being a fly on a log, hurtling down a water shoot with a 90 degree turn at the bottom and all you can do is waggle your leg in the water and yell, ‘whoa you sonofabitch, whoa!’” Since none of us really hold many of the keys to reforming business and converting profit maximizers with inadequate social benefit into social benefit maximizers with adequate economic performance, what is to be done? The answer lies, I believe, in three key areas: purpose, brand and culture. Each of us, through our own modest but powerful influence, can exert an influence on all three levers and effect meaningful change for the better.
In my book, entitled For Goodness Sake: Satisfy the hunger for meaningful business, I have laid out in more detail how each of us might make the kinds of differences in our businesses that a majority of employees just now entering the workforce proclaim as a priority. A purposeful enterprise, as I have elsewhere described (link?) in more detail is characterized as:
- Possessing a purpose that declares social good or common good to which the organization is determined to contribute (what we have called telos in its highest form, manifested as service to others)
- Embodying an identity expressed as brand that manifests the purpose and is confirmed by others as both welcome and needed;
- Exhibiting a culture that is both an authentic expression of the brand and is enlivened and energized by the purpose to which most employees, especially leaders, are personally committed.
My friend Dickie sat across the table in a London restaurant the other week and kindly told me that when I’d started writing about what I was calling “the purposeful enterprise” about two years ago that he thought I was rather too idealistic and impractical. He also told me that in the intervening two years he found himself surrounded by example after example of what I was writing about. I appreciated his kindness, and even more his growing conviction that the businesses in which most of us work are undergoing a profound migration, an accelerating movement toward delivering a positive social impact above all, and an adequate economic performance that will sustain the purpose.
Over the two years since Dickie and I first met to discuss the subject, he now seems to see signs of it everywhere, and I have been working to clarify and share what I described then. That’s what turned into For Goodness’ Sake: Satisfy the hunger for meaningful business.
Dickie is not imagining things when he looks out and sees signs of something new happening in business. For instance, when the CEO of a well-known consumer brand incorporates the engagement of tens of thousands of “at risk” youth as an imperative in the company’s strategy, he does so because of his own alienating experiences as a young man and his desire to make the world a better place by putting this company to work to support young people in local communities. He does not do it because of the “business case” of such an act. This is no pipe-dream – it is an action already taken (and unapologetically at that) by those leading an organization whose green and white logo peers out over countless street corners around the world.
So, from the perceived powerlessness and influence-poor positions which many of us consider we occupy, here are some disruptions we can cause to shift the momentum in favor of Telosity…For Goodness’ Sake!
Purpose: Raise the question: “why do we exist as a business?” Ask it of yourself, your manager, and your manager-once-removed. Ask it at all-hands meetings, in employee surveys and at meet-the-CEO lunches. Ask it at any opportunity you get and expect a difficult answer. It is a tough question but it needs to be asked until there is a satisfactory answer that animates a majority of employees. It is always found, we believe, in the domain of serving another. This is the domain of telos. To zero in on this rarer classification of purpose, ask others where you work, “who are we (this unique organization), in the service of others?” The answers will move you closer to finding it.
Brand: What is your company known for? What do “brand ambassadors” look like? What kind of reputation do you want for your company? What kind of reputation do you want for yourself? Is the company you work for doing what makes you proud to work there? Raise the question: “does our brand stand for something that really matters? Make your brand matter! Insist on it. No one likes working for a bunch of “takers” who rip off customers under the guise of “enhanced services.”
Culture: Is your company a faker? Does it actually do what it says it will? Are you personally a good representative of the brand to which your business aspires? If not, change! If you don’t want to change, find another job before someone helps you find one. Above all, work at what matters to you personally – life is far too short to be wasted in drudgery. Do what you love…and the world will be a better place!