Can Business Be Philosophical?

Recently I shared with you my passion for philosophy. You probably know I also have a profound passion for business.

And music, The Beatles, The Dodgers, wine, literature, children’s needs, social justice, and other stuff.

Back to philosophy and business: can they intersect?

This is where a lot of cynicism enters the picture.

Mark Zuckerberg says he is all about free speech and building global communities. He would have us believe a business—at least his business—should not be editing political expressions, even for accuracy. He asserts this is up to individuals to assess, or for the government to regulate if it can figure out a reasonable and fair way to impose guidance.

Should we believe Zuckerberg the visionary or Zuckerberg the voracious competitor? It doesn’t take a lot of analysis to know his goal is to keep selling ads, that any restrictions on free expression create a slippery slope for the addiction of his site contributors (i.e. all of us powering his pages with free content). It’s pretty clear he wants a level playing field around restrictions, meaning if the government regulates Facebook, he wants it to regulate all his competitors where he maintains a competitive advantage and is likely to win with ubiquitous rules.

Are free speech and “leave me alone to make money” compatible ideals, or the best possible excuse for self-interest?

Let’s try again.

Google’s stated mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” They are all about creating a definitive archive for global knowledge, about ensuring the best customer experience, and once upon a time about not being evil. That’s some philosophy!

Have you done a search on Google lately? Remember when organic search returns were clearly separated in columns from sponsored search returns? Yeah, that was before mobile made that largely impossible with much smaller screens. Today you practically have to be Sherlock Holmes to know what’s a paid ad on Google and what’s global knowledge. The keyword ads are everywhere. There’s a reason. They figured out how few bills the world’s information actually pays when displayed. They know which clicks are bankable in that trillion-dollar valuation.

One more for the road?

Apple wants us to believe it is at the heart of protecting our privacy, right to the edge of protecting the login codes of suspected dangerous criminals. Maybe that’s a big idea we have a hard time embracing because its scope means the tiny basket of bad eggs has to enjoy equal privacy if we want to protect the gigantic basket of good eggs.

Yet if privacy as a strategic mandate is a paramount position at Apple, how does the company abstract itself from all the apps that transmit our personal information to the data-mining servers of the world as fast as we type it in? Apple says it makes secure devices that are safe to use; that’s all they do and they do it brilliantly. If those devices open tunnels between those seeking data and those leaking data (again, all of us), that’s our tunnel to barricade or avoid, and it would be illogical to ask them to detour us otherwise.

Can a company have a point of view on elevated ideals, or are these polished notions just a bullhorn cry from the PR department?

I guess it all comes down to what we want to believe is a pure, important idea, and how far a company will go to spin a concept to its own advantage.

The issue is one of authenticity. Does a company truly embrace beliefs that are worth evangelizing, or are its statements around absolutes justifications of convenience?

Proclamations are not philosophy. A mission statement is not philosophy. Company values are not philosophy. All of these are constructs meant to unify the purpose of a business, but the business entity’s constant struggle with ambiguity, competition, and the demands of ownership too often compromises ideas when financial interests are at risk. We can say we want to act in a certain way, but will we always?

I have to admit, I have been guilty over the years of trying to inject philosophy into business practice. I have not been terribly successful. The conflicts of interest abound, and the enormously hard work of maintaining consistency can be exhausting. I used to have my employees read a book called Freedom and Accountability at Work by Peter Kostenbaum and Peter Block. It is about existentialism in the workplace. All but one colleague told me they couldn’t get past the first chapter. At least they were honest about it.

How do we avoid hypocrisy and cynicism in a world where we want to be better? We are often told Millenials want us to rise to a higher standard, that cause-based marketing resonates strongly with their brand loyalty. I think it is possible to “do good while doing well,” but I don’t think we accomplish this if we pretend we’re something that we’re not.

Instead of declarations that render themselves hopelessly artificial, companies can humble themselves in restraining their platitudes around the possible. Instead of attempting to hide behind crumbling categorical imperatives, business might be better suited to achievable standards that are consistently authentic.

Tell me the truth all the time, and I may trust you. Don’t tell me why your definition of truth is defined in the unreadable footnotes at the bottom of the page.

Be aspirational, and I may join in the celebration of your mission and values. Don’t tell me that your company has discovered or defined a nobility that somehow makes you better than your competition.

Be well-meaning in the goods and services you provide, whether ensuring quality or seeking a healthier supply chain, and I may respect your brand. Don’t proselytize and expect me to believe you are pursuing a higher calling—profits be damned—when transparency betrays your more obvious motivations.

A business can be great, even legendary, without being philosophical. Let it be honest, consistent, and authentic—that’s plenty to tackle and enormously difficult on top of being outrageously good at something. The agenda of business is measurable, culminating in success.

Leave philosophy to the philosophers. Who would that be? That can be any of us—the storytellers around the campfire, the quiet voices in a coffee shop, the ardent dialogue in anyone’s home. The agenda of sharing, exchanging, and challenging ideas is immeasurable and ultimately boundless.


Photo: Pexels


On a Mission or Just Staying Awake

One of the themes I explore in my forthcoming debut novel, This is Rage, is the notion of motivation.  This is a subject I hold dear, and one I focus on a great deal in the executive coaching workshop I co-lead with John Vercelli.

mission-statement-vs-vision-statementIf all a mission statement is meant to do is fill a half page in your human resources handbook, it is probably not worth the time to write it down.  One of my former teachers and board members used to say he had a vision of all the great mission statements in the world collected in a single volume, and there could be no possible better bedtime sleeping remedy than trying to force oneself through those pages with one’s eyelids open.  Again I agree, if a mission is just a string of words — Buzzword Bingo without a juicy prize — it will not motivate, but let’s consider a few potential examples of applying a personal leadership mission in attempting to inspire a team.

Here are three choices I offer participants in the workshop, all of which we’ve heard in some variation, from the absurdly failing to the boldly aspirational:

Choice 1:

To make this department much more efficient and profitable!

Choice 2:

To overcome market forces and prevail over our competition!

Choice 3:

To provide my team with the support and resources they need, to the very best of my ability, to collaborate and do the very best work of their careers.

My response to Choice 1:

Not gonna inspire, management by fear is so not cool.

My response to Choice 2:

You’re starting to get my attention, through an occasional yawn.

My response to Choice 3:

I’d build you a log cabin in the arctic if you asked me.

Call me an optimist; people like to be inspired.  It’s not a sleight of hand.  Real leadership means rallying people around a cause, to subordinate their own personal quirks to the shared agenda adopted.  The leader’s job is to create the environment for sharing.

Is it the business leader’s job to make her or his department more efficient and profitable?  Do we really need to ask?  It goes without saying, so don’t seek glory in the obvious.  Is it the business leader’s job to respond to market forces and win market share from the competition?  Once more I ask, where’s the question?  Any answer to this presupposes a complete lack of faith in the common sense of why we are employed by our company and not another.  Is it the business leader’s job to rally, help, support, test, and muster the collective wisdom of those assembled to form a team and work together?  That should be just as obvious, but try saying it aloud and look at the surprised gazing around you.  That’s what people want to hear.  Uttering the manifesto is the first step toward building trust and accomplishing the impossible.  True, it’s just the first step, and trust is easily shattered when actions upend words.  Yet it’s an important step, and it does fire up hearts and minds much in advance of a spreadsheet.

It also connotes vulnerability — to the very best of my ability — which again is all in fact you can ever do.  Not proclaiming more makes you human, perhaps a form of life other people are more willing to follow.  Be honest, not only about what you can do, but in admitting that you are not de facto possessive of superpowers.  Try it out, it just might give you superpowers.

In my novel, a few clever and powerful people are trying to make a whole lot of money.  That is not a bad thing, until they forget that how you make the money is the difference between taking along a deserving set of others and leaving almost all of them behind.  Most of the people in the story just want to do their jobs, to find a way to love their jobs, to shake off the demoralization that has come from the illogical separation between task and income.  When a job is a paycheck, you don’t need a mission statement or real leadership, you just keep your head low and get through the day.  When a job is about something more, it’s still a paycheck — we all need a paycheck — but the purpose of the work is a much more substantial driver, creating better outcomes and better paydays.  Improved business comes from more engaged employees, and getting those employees engaged is a soft skill that in the hands of a master can conquer most obstacles.  That’s when work is fun, when we believe in something, when we believe in the leaders and their values and their rallying cries and we choose to be a part of innovation’s path.

The promise of the start-up is to build something new with heartfelt values at its core, and in closely held companies at modest scale it is much easier for founders to maintain the kind of personal mission and creative culture that reflects this entrepreneurial DNA.  When an exceptional start-up enters a period of hyper growth, hands on sustenance of idealized culture becomes considerably more difficult.  Should the start-up go public, it too easily can take on the shape and form of the goliaths it sought not to be, and then the challenge of maintaining a mission grounded in shared values is often put on trial.  The disconnect between what was innocently envisioned and what inertia morphs can be terribly upsetting to the grasping loyals, who hold their idealism in longing, hoping at length for the pledge to retake honest meaning.

Still it is important to remember than the personal leadership mission can endure.  Indeed it might be less than a grand corporate mission statement, but I believe conviction is almost always within a business leader’s reach at all levels of an organization.  Committing to a personal leadership mission is a choice — a brave choice with its own risk — and while rare, a good one in the spirit of Choice 3 has a decent shot at creating significantly more employee engagement and long-term value than the other two slug lines.  It’s all a matter of executive style, setting a tone for the broadest possible positive, tangible outcomes.

It is too easy to check out, and once people check out, try getting them to check back in.  As my story compounds, an awful lot of people check out — because they don’t feel valued, because they don’t feel inspired, because they see what they do each day as separate and divorced from the actual process that creates income for the business and value for the shareholders.  Tie those pieces back together and real innovation comes a good deal more naturally.

Leadership is not so much a word as a behavior, a walking example of what it means to be intertwined with the enterprise.  It does begin with words, words that are grounded, words that do something.  Choose those words carefully, lead by example, motivate by inclusion, dole out support without reservation.

You want to keep things humming, make it a little less comfortable and a little more complicated — for yourself, not those you guide.  In the book, I take you to the extremes of this world view, heroic and cowardly and all that binds the spectrum.  The words did not come easily to me, but I committed myself to resilience and found them over time.  You can, too.

A Little More on Loyalty

Following up my last post on the strange phenomenon of willing senior-level turnover, one of my colleagues suggested I expand on the following:

How do today’s companies inspire, and enact, loyalty within the shifting parameters and instabilities of the contemporary business world? This is the question that gnaws at me.

It really is a quandary in the world of “at-will employment.” Downsizing, right-sizing, presumed right-sizing, grading, rating, ranking, bottom 10% trimming (yuck!), all of these are the strident tools of Management Consulting—not to mention Fear and Loathing in the Workplace, to borrow from the late Hunter S. Thompson. But what are the tools of inspiration, engagement, and leadership for everyday folks?

Many of us remember the phrase Getting to Yes from the 1981 tome by Roger Fisher and William Ury about straightforward negotiation. Let’s try to eke out a pathway for Getting to Loyalty, or at least identify the mismatched needs that most open the door to conflict. Here’s the rub as I boil it down from my experiences—the priorities of individuals and companies in the hiring decision funnel are not necessarily aligned.

When I coach an individual on the job-changing decision, I ask him or her to focus on three core needs in the following order before pulling the trigger, those things that I think matter most in building a long-term career:

1) What you do—is the work itself compelling, satisfying for the sacrifices you will make, a set of diverse tasks that will lead to continual growth and learning?

2) Who you do it for—is your boss sane when it comes to managing authority, a reasonable mentor, and a decent leader?

3) How much will you be compensated—is it fair pay for what you produce, or would you be valued more highly elsewhere given conditions 1 & 2 are equal. Note that I put pay level in position 3 of 3, when it will almost always be the #1 tactic someone uses in trying to poach you. You are likely committing about half of your waking hours. Beware the trade, Mephistopheles.

In juxtaposition, here’s what I think most companies focus on in the final offer process, not necessarily thinking long-term, sometimes just filling a box with a warm body to knock down a set of tasks:

1) Are you competent—does the individual arrive with the necessary skills to do the job?

2) Are you affordable—will you create rather than consume value given how much you are paid?

3) Are you a culture fit—do your needs, work style, and world view remove or add friction to the work environment.

If you agree with those contrasting three points as a premise, you can see where loyalty can become an issue, because both sides don’t want the same thing, beginning with tenure and commitment. The individual is idealistic, human, fragile, creative, hungry, in search of self-realization and interpersonal relationships, emotional bonds that can be reciprocal. The company is pragmatic, an inorganic construct that is valued on metrics by objective third-party measures that are entirely unforgiving of missed opportunities in the form of creative destruction. Individual rewards can be intrinsic (good feelings) as well as extrinsic (take home pay), while corporations and their owners are rewarded on a much simpler scorecard by the optimized deployment of capital and management of risk, often avoiding complex human interplay in pursuit of a level playing field and legal fairness.

You can’t have a puzzle without puzzle pieces, but getting the puzzle pieces it fit in real-time is no small challenge. Hence the nuts and bolts that often don’t snap into place:

• You want interesting and fulfilling work. The company wants you to do what you have proven you do best. You may want to grow, they may want to pigeonhole you.

• You think you’re worth more. They want to pay you less, but more than that, not disturb the status quo for the pay grade into which you fit. If you get a raise, others will come asking, no matter how quiet you promise to be. Leaks are everywhere, because confidential knowledge exchange inside companies is a currency all its own.

• You want to be you, not wear a suit of conformity. They say they want out-of-the-box thinkers, but only if they play nicely. People are who they are, not who the company wants them to be. Both individuals and companies know they must change to survive, but naturally resist it. Creativity is not nice.

Starting to see the problem about how hard loyalty is on both sides of the equation? Now let’s think about some ways to close the gap. Let’s go outside the corporation for a proxy, to those we love rather than those beside whom we labor.

Any sense of loyalty within a family or among friends has less to do with a verbal pledge than it has to do with shared values. We don’t choose our families, but we choose our trust levels, often on the basis of belief sets. We do choose our friends, initially on the basis of common interests, but over periods of time those interests bridge to commonalities of caring. When values are shared and reinforced, bonding is enhanced, we have reason to heal more quickly from conflict. When values are misaligned, it is much less painful to sever a relationship, sometimes with notions or actions that can be punitive.

Values are not necessarily unique to people (and no, companies are not people, if you think that, you never worked for a real one). Too many companies state their values in their mission statement, then file it in Human Resources or post it somewhere obscure in the About Us or Recruiting sections of their website.

Believe it or not, some companies take their values very seriously. I have worked for companies where core values were a big deal and discussed all the time, and I have worked for those where they never came up except for copy approval in a brochure. You can often tell when you hear senior executives speak publicly about their companies, they lead by example and choose their words deliberately not for public relations, but for accurate representation of the company culture they champion. They know a company is just an artificial bureaucracy meant to produce profit, but they want it to be more and are willing to reach beyond the bounds of the normal to make that happen. If you don’t see a reflection of the values that matter to you in the vision of a company’s leading evangelists, I promise you it won’t get any better deeper in the organization.

Values—integrity, honesty, customer service, creativity, responsibility, intelligence, diversity, compassion, respect—can’t be faked. If a company treats its public image as a distinct entity from its actual operating behavior, turnover will be high. That might be okay for you if all you want is a paycheck for as long as it lasts, but just like a company cannot be something it is not, you cannot will it to be something it only pretends to be. You need to know what those values are, and whether they are words or realities. If you get a fit, there’s a chance that loyalty can happen. At the very least, the relationships you build will be more likely to follow you through your career than the accrued value of a pension.

A final word for now on values, loyalty, knowing when to stay and when to go—one of the first truly important maxims I learned in business was that given a choice, most employees don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. Let’s end there.