I wonder if I’m alone when I look around at the circumstances that have led to the continuing crisis in our economy (is anyone prepared to bet that it won’t get worse before it gets better?) and consider whether the foundations can be found not just in the reckless get-rich-quick attitudes of a handful of irresponsible bankers but in a more general failure of our collective moral compass?
I’ve been reading Gary Hamel’s “What Matters Now”. You may be familiar with his previous works, which include “Competing for the Future” and “The Future of Management”, but his latest work strikes a particularly resonant chord, and offers a timely reassessment of our priorities as business people.
Where can we find the real values?
I have never felt comfortable with the motivations of some of the ambitiously driven CEOs I’ve bumped into over the years whose primary goal, to the exclusion of every other consideration, is to drive the valuation of their companies skywards whatever the cost. I’ve see way too many of these organisation crash into a cliff. And any sense of real success - even when it appears to have been achieved - often proves illusory.
The mentors I have greatest regard for have pursued a different path - identify a profound problem that you believe you can solve better than anyone else, gather like minded people around you, have the patience to stay the course, treat your customers, employees and partners with respect, and the results will surely come.
Success is an outcome, not a goal
These are the attitudes I can remember at HP when I first joined - when the founding fathers of that once great company were still influencing its values, and when success was not something to be pursued at any cost, but was instead the result of making the right choices and having the courage and the persistence to follow them through.
Above all, their values reflected a respect for the individual, for ones’ colleagues, for the company and for the community of which we were a part and whose future we sought to shape for the better.
Five guiding principles
But back to Gary Hamel, and his challenge to us all to build companies that are fit for the future and fit for human beings. I want to share the guidance that Hamel gave to his MBA students as their course came to an end and they prepared to take what they had learned into the world.
When you take your first post-MBA job, he told them, assume that the following things are true, and let them guide the decisions you make:
- Your widowed mother has invested her life’s savings in your company. She’s the only shareholder and that investment is her only asset. Obviously, you’ll do everything to make sure she has a secure and happy retirement - and that’s why the idea of sacrificing the long-term for a quick payout will never occur to you.
- Your boss is an older sibling. You’ll always be respectful, but you won’t hesitate to offer frank advice when you think it’s warranted - and you’ll never suck up.
- Your employees are childhood chums. You’ll always give them the benefit of the doubt and will do whatever you can to smooth their path. When needed, though, you’ll remind them that friendship is a reciprocal responsibility - and you’ll never treat them as human “resources”.
- Your children are the company’s primary customers. You want to please and delight them. That means you’ll go to the mat with anyone who suggests you should deceive or take advantage of them - and that you’ll never exploit a customer.
- Finally, you’re independently wealthy. You work because you want to, not because you have to - so you will never sacrifice your integrity for a promotion or a glowing performance review. You’ll quit before you compromise.
Imagine if more of our business and political leaders had made their decisions on the basis of these five principles over the past decade. But perhaps more important, imagine if we had more often held ourselves and those we chose to vote for, to work for or with, or to do business with (even if it were only to consume their products) to the same high standards.
I challenge you to persuade me that we wouldn’t be doing better, or that we wouldn’t be feeling better about ourselves, and the outcomes we manage to cause. These are the things that matter now. Values matter. Why would we want to wait for anyone else to take the lead?
By the way, there's a lot more to Hamel's book than homespun philiosophising. He offers a framework for building organisations that are of the moment yet built to last, and that can succeed in a world of relentless change, fierce competition and unstoppable innovation.
Organisations built on values. It may have become unfashionable in some quarters. But it's what matters now.