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We exist for a purpose. So do our corporations.

Despite its cost, COVID may have been a blessing.

I say this mindful that in my own family we lost two of our beloved seniors to COVID and are suffering the consequences of Long COVID, still.

The Collective Wisdom was really . . .

Prior to the pandemic, the collective wisdom was that Monday to Friday, much of the population in the ‘developed’ world, rose between 6 am and 9 am, transported itself twenty miles or so at a cost to the planet and personal well-being, to then strut about the corporate workplace as though life were completely handled - all while it desperately tried to achieve relentless, ‘motivating’, goals and targets. Any chink in the armour of having one’s life handled could diminish one’s prospects of promotion, so personal problems were kept to oneself.

The working population then transported itself back, between 4 pm and 7 pm, arriving home shattered, disappointed at not having done as much as needed to be done - but, anyway, needing to cook tonight’s meal ASAP. To repeat the next day, and the next.

There were a number of disturbing trends that attended this lifestyle, including:

  • An increasing incidence of mental illness and suicide, particularly among the young, but in the workplace too;

  • Healthcare systems - physical and mental, increasingly at the point of breakdown;

  • Road and rail transportation systems at rush-hour bursting point;

  • Increasing pollution.

And our return for these spiralling human costs:

  • Dismal productivity.

The universal panacea for each of these trends? The Government must do more.

It is incredible that we wondered why much of the population was unhappy and why mental illness and suicide were on the up when so many of our personal needs (needs, not preferences), like relationships and personal and family admin, were left to the weekend.

In the seventies to nineties, there was a minority of the population which was labelled ‘latch-key children’. These children came home to an empty house after school because both parents were at work.

The term is no longer used as so many of our young are latch-key children, their parents on the treadmill 12 hours away from home five days a week. We just accept that’s just how life is.

Ah! But we have the weekends when we can relax and be with our families!

The Collective Insanity

Really? By virtue of the working week intruding on our waking hours, much personal administration has to be relegated to the weekend. The weekend is, in fact, when many have to do the shopping, washing, ironing, hoovering, dusting, house maintenance and decoration, bed-changing, car-fixing, grass cutting, church and/or the dump, and, if you are a husband, duties. There is little time for children - “Darling, I’ll play with you tomorrow. Go and play on your phone . . .” – or for personal grounding.

And the elderly? Who’s got time for them? But you make time and wonder why you feel perpetually exhausted as you run the rat-race. This is what leads to much of the stress experienced today. Stress is your experience when you perceive that you are unable to meet your own or others’ expectations of you.

Prior to COVID we existed for our corporations rather than our corporations existing for us (we are human resources after all). This is not the collective wisdom, rather, the collective insanity.

But then COVID crashed-in and we were forced to re-engineer our work patterns. And re-engineer we did. Within weeks, employees in financial firms who had for twenty years been asking for some sort of home-working facility were working from home permanently. Trains, buses, and roads emptied as all but key-workers worked from home.

Which COVID transformed

The unsung heroes of the technology industry rose to the challenge of secure connectivity and the results were so effective, that many of the COVID work practices have remained post-COVID. Not all are perfect, however; while some are able to use spare rooms and studies for work, many, in more modest dwellings, find their bedrooms and kitchens are having to double as workstations.

Despite these initial shortcomings, many service industries have introduced widespread home-working practices with their managers running their teams remotely. Being whacked from the lousy commute has been replaced with being ‘Zoomed out’ but we won’t go into that.

And the result? More people have been able to work effectively while being able to meet their real personal needs such as putting the washing on, receiving deliveries, running the dish-washer, and being there for the children etc. All absolute requirements of modern-day living. Requirements that were, for the most part, ignored by the need to appear 100% of the time in the office!

Leaving the real cost

It remains to be seen whether the new work patterns will change the mental sickness and suicide trends for the better. I hope so but doubt it. There was another far greater, yet insidious, cost to the pre and post COVID lifestyle. A cost that has not been addressed by, and may be exacerbated by, the change to work practices: the utter lack of meaning in many work-peoples’ lives other than the proximity of their current workday to Friday, and the number of weeks until their next holiday.

Lack of meaning and purpose, other than to bring home more money, is the reason for those disturbing trends quoted above.

Managers assume, therefore, that a critical part of their role is having to motivate their people, and their tools of choice: goals, targets, and the current fix for lives bereft of meaning: values.

But people have to be (externally) motivated only when they are not already (internally) inspired. The leader’s actual job is to have inspiration be present in their teams and workforces. If they are having to motivate, they haven’t achieved that.

Abandoning the Heart

That leaders are not inspiring their teams is down to a simple mistake we began to make over two thousand years ago about the relevance of emotional intelligence.

Before that time, the great and the good lived in their palaces while the great unwashed lived in their hovels. ‘Twas ever thus.

But then the great teachers began to arrive, each proclaiming their variants of the end of suffering and/or heaven on earth and the great unwashed said, “Yes! We want it!” and embraced the new learnings, and all was good.

Except that over the centuries, the teachings got interpreted and written-up by men who, claiming the moral high ground, required to be educated, housed, fed and wined in special religious buildings, actually not unlike the palaces of yore, built for them by the great unwashed, who served them, but who continued to live in their hovels.

Every so often, one of the great teachings would claim to be right, or to be the Truth, or that another was not-right, or not the Truth and the only way to clarify the position was to go to war.

Thus the revelations of the great teachers, in practice, seemed to change nothing about the world or the ordering of society, or the plight of the great unwashed, and actually caused a lot of unhappiness and poverty. What would later be regarded as heart-driven emotional intelligence was seen to be deeply flawed and meddlesome, with no immediate return. But that’s all there was, so they were stuck with it.

For the Head

But the Age of Reason changed all that. Logic, rational thinking, and science started to produce results and rapid solutions to age-old worldly problems. With a bit of science, the palaces and the hovels got windows and with a bit more science, central heating, without the need for war. And so the Western world began to revere logic and science which gave immediate answers, over the emotional approach which changed nothing and often led to problems.

Renee Descartes gave philosophical approval to this stance with his “I think therefore I am.”

And in practice, rational thinking’s primacy was confirmed by the extraordinary explosion in wealth generated by Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management which gave the world its ultimate wealth generating machine: the production line.

‘If it’s based on science, it’s good’ was the mantra of the twentieth century.

The Revolution that was Free Enterprise Capitalism

The Age of Reason was also to give us Free Enterprise Capitalism, which in the space of two hundred years transformed humanity and generated sufficient wealth to elevate millions of people from poverty and illiteracy. Yet, despite these extraordinary feats, capitalism has a bad name. Why?

Capitalism, primarily, is a system of cooperation to get things done. From a combination of inputs, the corporation creates certain desired outputs. If the cooperation is ineffective, the inputs are inadequately rewarded by the outputs. In other words, if the enterprise is not successful, stakeholders are not paid.

The cost of profit maximisation

But in capitalism’s early days it was noticed that the successful operations got things done and made a profit which could then be re-invested in other operations so improving life for all concerned. The making of profit and, indeed, profit maximisation, came to be regarded by classical economists as a fundamental principle of capitalism whereas, in fact, any project had first to meet the concern for which it had been formulated before investors could be paid. Profits ensue.

The problem with pursuing profits is that it changes the emphasis of the operation from fulfilling its purpose effectively to doing the minimum it takes to achieve and maximise a profit.

But in the Age of Reason numbers representing profit were an easy measure whereas a leader’s ability to read the future, for example, was not.

The stance of the classical economists was compounded in the early twentieth century by the discovery of “What gets measured gets managed.” (wrongly attributed to Peter Drucker) when shop floor bosses discovered that by posting the previous shift’s team output numbers on the notice board and saying nothing, all team productivity improved, as word got round that they were being watched.

This was the context for capitalism when Professor Milton Friedman wrote famously in 1970 that “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” This served to confirm the profit motive as the raison d’etre of the corporation and it was embraced by Wall St and the City as the measure of a corporation’s efficacy.

The quarterly earnings numbers became the barometer of a CEO’s ability and, as you might imagine, all internal measures got skewed in pursuit of these very public numbers. Goals, targets, and bonuses became legion in pursuit of the numbers, and capitalism became as much, if not more so, about making the quarterly numbers as the longer term provision of value and delight in fulfilling the concern for which the operation was formed.

And it wasn’t long before the public sector saw the shorter term benefits of what gets measured gets managed so that everyone in the public sector including pupils at schools has become subject to a relentless outpouring of goals, targets, and grades which always get increased in the next year - to motivate.

The consequence of this reverence for logic and rational thinking is that it has achieved primacy in our culture with numbers easy to use and measure. So that many of our key decisions are choices based upon rational thought.

Profit is about getting. The operation is about giving.

Sounds okay, except that human beings don’t work like that. Logic and rational thinking are tools - servants not masters. Your heart is closer to who you really are than your head. You are actually designed to experience joy and fulifilment when you serve the greater good in a way that you enjoy. So if you want to get good things done let your heart choose what (in other words, get inspired), and use your head to plan on getting it.

Similarly with a corporation. It exists primarily to achieve its purpose. If it does so it will be paid.

Inspiration in practice

You can see the difference between the application of cognitive and emotional intelligence in an exercise I did in training on Miles Kierson’s Executive Team Alignment Programme. We role-played being the Sainsbury’s executive team seeking to define our purpose.

Our minds defaulted to the usual rational responses: to achieve market share of 35%; increase profits by 30%; to be the best in the UK. No-one except those role-playing the CEO and CFO were interested. The afternoon dragged on with more ‘sensible’ suggestions failing to light us up. Until just before we were about to give up, someone at the back called out, “Aren’t we here to feed the world?”

YES!!!!! The room went wild with visions of Sainsbury’s rolling out branches throughout Africa, giving sustenance and clean water to all who needed it.

Was that logical? No! But was it inspiring? Oh yes, and so simple (the sign of a good purpose). Wouldn’t you want to work for a company whose aim is to feed the world, eradicate hunger, and alleviate suffering?

And wouldn’t you also want to be one of the stakeholders in such an enterprise, doing your bit to feed the world?

Free Enterprise Capitalism should focus on a lot more than profit

It is not free enterprise capitalism that is to blame for the disturbing trends mentioned earlier. In two hundred years, Capitalism has wrought an economic transformation for the majority of the population in countries where it has been allowed to flourish. As a system of free cooperation for getting things done, it has obviously worked. What hasn’t worked is the inordinate focus on profit maximisation at the cost of working through all stakeholders toward the greater purpose.

People require meaning in their lives - meaning which generally involves service to the greater good.

Stakeholders who require maximised quarterly earnings at the expense of more substantial outputs, and motivate their workforces commensurately, fail to give their people meaning and inspiration, vital components of mental well-being.

A corporation exists primarily to fulfil its purpose AND for the well-being of all its stakeholders. This gives all involved an internally generated purpose and reason for being, rather than the mindless, relentless, publication of goals and targets which are the staple of manipulation, disguised as motivation.

Feed the world

In your team/organisation, ensure that you and the members of your team are doing your variant of feeding the world. Know and pursue your purpose. If you do, you will have an innovative, productive and fulfilled team and your measures of success will look after themselves.

This is the stance of Conscious Capitalism, a growing movement that aims to get things done through profitable corporations, for the benefit of all stakeholders.

By Christopher Jones-Warner

Recommended further reading:

  • Start with Why - Simon Sinek

  • Conscious Capitalism - John Mackey and Raj Sisodia

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