By Jerry Dilettuso
Whenever I taught my course, “The Five Roles of the Chief Executive Officer” to MBA students at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business, I always stressed that the most difficult thing any CEO ever has to do is to convince colleagues to abandon their own multiple, personal goals in favor of the singular goal of team success. As surprising as it may sound, this too is a process, and it starts with the articulation of a “loftier purpose.”
Although foreign to business organizations, the concept of dedication to a “loftier purpose” underpins athletic teams. The “loftier purpose” is generally stated in terms of a goal such as a national championship season, the achievement of which is more important than, and senior to, any team member’s individual ambitions and achievements. Whereas the “whole” is truly only equal to the sum of its parts, the “whole” is larger when team success is achieved. We often see talented teams lose to teams of lesser talent that show greater dedication to achievement of the team goal. The 1980 men’s Olympic ice hockey team, consisting of mostly collegians that were not expected to advance beyond pool play, yet defeated the Soviet Union team that had won gold in the previous four Olympics is a prime example.
While we recognize that emotion plays a large role in athletic performance, we are loath to consider it plays an equally important role in business success. After all, business is tough, hard-nosed, and, above all, rational. It has to be rational because business, unlike trivial athletics, is about serious stuff; livelihoods hang in the balance. “There’s no crying in business.” The more rational, the better, and per chance, some emotion finds its way into our business affairs, we must ruthlessly root it out. The highly emotional thought that, “Success comes with true affection for one’s teammates,” is beyond the ken of business.
The last time I checked business included people. The famed neurobiologist and author of Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Antonio Damasio, explains people’s personally beneficial decision-making requires both emotion and reason. People gravitate to, if not crave, purpose. “Loftier purposes” come with equal parts of rationality and emotion. They also include the notions of eternality and impossibility.
Some examples of “loftier purpose” are:
- Wikipedia: Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.
- Google: Organize all the world’s information and make it accessible and useful.
- Recreational Equipment: Reconnect people with nature.
- Whole Foods: People enjoying better health through natural foods.
- Walt Disney Company: Using our imaginations to bring happiness to millions.
In their book, Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose, authors Rajendra S. Sisodia, David B. Wolfe, and Jagdish N. Sheth tell us to construct a “loftier purpose,” we should relate it to a universal truth:
- The Good: Service to others; improving health, education, and quality of life.
- The True: Discovery and furtherance of human knowledge.
- The Beautiful: Excellence and the creation of elegance.
- The Heroic: Courage to do what is right.
One might reasonably ask the question, “Does this emotional approach that requires subsuming one’s personal goals and aspirations within a larger goal of organizational success work in business? The authors of Firms of Endearment selected several hundred companies based on humanistic values including:
- They referred to their employees in more endearing terms, such as team members or associates.
- They paid their team members better and provided better benefits packages than did their competitors.
- They treated team members more equitably and respectfully regardless of their hierarchical seniority.
- They invested in their communities and reduced their companies’ adverse impact on the environment.
- They did not state their goal as “maximizing shareholder value.”
They culled the list to 18 publicly traded and ten private companies that exhibited the most and best of the above characteristics. The chart below displays all 28 companies’ combined return on investment over a three, five, ten, and fifteen year time frame versus the S&P 500 and the eleven companies chronicled in Jim Collins’ best selling book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…And Others Don’t.
The chart is telling us, “Yea, emotion and team primacy work in business too!”
For a considerable portion of my career, which now spans six decades, I have been involved in turnaround situations that exhibited extreme trauma. Here is a list of antidotes I have applied:
- Change the CEO from one who is concerned with survival to one who is more concerned with organizational advancement and who recognizes emotion is a natural and useful human phenomenon.
- Inculcate a more egalitarian and respectful culture.
- Develop calm and reasoned discourse around the stark, factual realities of the situation.
- Embrace the outspoken so long as their intent is not solely self-serving.
- Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to resolve issues with a “closeted-in-an-office-cabal-of-wise-men” who control information flow, edit and sanitize data in terms of the brutal facts it contains, and dictate what “must” be done. IT NEVER WORKS!!!
- Recognize the seeds of advancement lay within the organization; there are plenty of people who know what is wrong and what to do. They’re just looking for a leader to help them.
- Recruit to values as much as credentials.
- Over communicate.
While engaging in all of the above activities, the organization must develop a “loftier purpose.” Purpose is about asking why the organization exists and answering the question in terms of what it stands for with equal parts emotion, rationality, eternality, and impossibility. It is not an easy endeavor, and it is not done quickly. Any organization must expend as much of its collective time and efforts on the development of a “loftier purpose” as it would on the development of an exceptional advertising campaign, for in a sense a well conceived, succinct, and memorable “loftier purpose” is an organization’s best advertisement.
Jerry Dilettuso is a contributing author to Texas CEO and is the North American President of UCROO, a provider of a SaaS based online communcity app for universities.