Your Guru lied

One of the most pernicious, sanctimonious and unhelpful lies told on conference stages and in books is that you have to look after your people and customers to be a success. You’ve been told it many times – that if you don’t do these things then you are doomed to failure. It’s unhelpful and untrue. I know some of my friends buy into this lie. I know I spent a lot of my career doing so too. Apologies to anyone offended and also to those I have misled with my good intentions.

There are obvious and notable instances where we know that success being down to ‘doing all the right things’ is a lie. Conference speakers and writers don’t talk about them – or if they do they edit the story so it is more positive. Someone said to me recently that ‘people don’t buy products – they buy the purpose of the company’. I’m curious as to who is buying the purpose of Amazon, Sports Direct or even McDonald’s. Next time you fly Ryanair is it due to ‘values congruence’? These concepts come from marketeers and gurus trying to sell their services and telling you this as fact. It’s obvious bunkum. Just look at the world’s most successful organisations and ask who is ‘buying purpose’? The answer is patently ‘not enough people to make a difference’. It’s just a nicer thought.

To all of the people who say that success won’t be sustainable without a compelling purpose, just look at the average tenure of a CEO and reflect on to what extent that matters to them. I’m sure the vast majority would like to build sustainable organisations – but a bit like our political system – short term market popularity is overly rewarded compared to sustainable growth. It’s like the world’s biggest Skinner Box. So if you pop up and tell your CEO that doing x and y is the only way you will succeed then i) they probably know that isn’t true ii) their definition of success may be different to yours.

You could argue that more engaged/happier/purposeful/meaningful workplaces are more likely to outstrip the market over time, but reliable indicators for that are few and far between as we ignore survivor bias – how many well intentioned orgs aren’t there to report on because they never became successful. People have studies they’ll quote – but just reflect on the source, credibility and motivation for those studies. Then look at the world’s most profitable companies and see how well you can reconcile that list with what you’ve been told.

Now comes the important part…

I know all of the above. I know telling people that you can’t be a success without a great working environment and great people and great leadership and a wonderful social purpose is a lie. And yet I choose to work at an organisation that has an explicit purpose of ‘Championing Better Work and Working Lives’. We advocate good work – every single day.

Because I firmly believe that people deserve a great working environment, great people around them, great leaders and a sense of purpose in their work. I believe that is a broader social good and obligation. I believe in the right balance being struck between organisational commitment, commitment to employees and customer. I believe it doesn’t have to be a trade off.

I concede that I might not be able to tell a CEO that it’s this way or failure. But I believe that there are different ways to succeed. Some of them more likely. And that’s important. I believe the more people who have good work available to them the better ‘we’ will be as a community and society. And that matters very much to me.

So don’t pursue the goal of better work because it’s a commercial obligation. Embrace the fact that there are ways organisations can have an impact beyond the P&L. There’s a bigger net cost and benefit being played out here than shows in the accounts. Similar to Bobby Kennedy’s exceptional speech on GDP

Even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all

We have agency and influence – and maybe even obligation – but don’t start with the marketing.

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