Why do we keep discussing the challenges of capitalism in terms of polarities? Profit vs purpose; profitability vs people; extraction vs regeneration; investment vs philanthropy. It may make for attention grabbing headlines, and it may fit into the paradigmatic balance sheet mentality, but it doesn’t do justice to the interconnectedness of capitalism.
In a recent piece about Marc Benioff, Founder of Salesforce and recent purchaser of Slack, David Streitfeld (NYTimes Feb 13, 2023), opens with Benioff’s reaction to the polarity question: success or happiness – and predictably Benioff responds, both.
Streitfeld lists the challenges Benioff faces in trying to live his ideal duality and forge his “new model of capitalism.” Benioff has had to sacrifice caring for people and the planet in order to deliver the returns demanded by “the market.”
Can a company, Streitfeld asks, achieve the ideal of delivering great returns, great lives for employees, and great conditions for the community and the planet?
This is not a new question. Indeed, we can go back to the parent of modern economy theory, Adam Smith, who was quite clear about the battle lines between public and private interests in a monied economy. The surge of interest, and investment, in Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), reflects the current conversation about the role and responsibilities of the corporation.
For many, ESG is essential to protecting the reputational equity of a company; for others, it is a reflection of “woke capitalism.”
For a few leading Corporate Investors, such as Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock, ESG issues are “material to corporate valuations” (NYTimes Dec 22, 2022). For others ESG is disingenuous and deceptive because it lacks verifiable and comparable standards and definitions – and no accountability governance. (Fortune Dec 2022) Even the debate around ESG reflects our polarized mindset – it is either fully good, or completely bad. (The Corporation)
We at Bovitz spend our time uncovering and understanding the contours of corporate brands and the expectations people have of them. We have learned two key things that show us the paucity of competing dualisms.
The first is that corporations are complex organisms: shaped by an array of drivers and ambitions, answerable to an often-conflicting range of interests, and run by people with their collection of egos, vulnerabilities, needs and desires, corporations are always more than simplistic, opposing descriptors. Corporations embody differences and divergences at the same time, and defy easy, simplified characterizations.
And this is obviously because people are multivalent – holding competing ideas and ideals, ambitions and apprehensions all at the same time. But it is also because groups of people, operating together, whether as communities or organizations, are a web of inter-connected nodes. For every action there is an impact on perceptions and actions, which in turn generate impacts in a never-ending, ever-expanding network of reactivity.
Given this, the second key thing we have learned is that nothing is static, everything is networked, and reality is mutually constituted. As much as we may want to use clear categories to explain how this works, the very act of reductionism misses the point.
And the point is the variability and multivalent nature of people, individually and collectively.
The Bovitz team has been collecting proprietary data on the human condition for many years, and we see how people are an amazing collection of variety, of differences, and of divergence. There is no singular truth about any discrete individual, or about groups of individuals. As we often say – everything is custom.
Which is why, to understand the possibilities for organizations, we always start with People First.
If we can illuminate the complex array of forces that animate and inform individual perceptions and actions, then we can reveal the ways that corporations and brands can improve their actions.
When we start with People, and deeply listen to their stories through their voices, we can illuminate the factors that can shape how organizations, companies – indeed capitalism - can be reimagined.
Or as we put it, the path to profit starts with understanding and addressing people’s needs. And that is all about understanding their interconnected complexity.
We understand that the question “success or happiness” was designed to force Benioff to choose between two presumed opposing poles. Benioff’s response may be the response of an ambitious leader who “wants it all,” Perhaps it is the prescient response, because a reimagined capitalism is one where there is no opposing binary between success and happiness. Perhaps the ideal to strive for is a reality where the conventional binaries are mutually reinforcing: where success and happiness, profit and purpose are the aligned forces, and outcomes, of capitalism.
If we want to reimagine how capitalism can generate healthy and regenerative economic, social and environmental conditions, we need to understand the voices and interests of people.
And this is, by definition, a collaborative journey.
We at Bovitz are always interested in learning from, and working with, others to shape the pathway.
We welcome a conversation: #capitalism #ESG #PeopleFirst