In the last 40 years, business has become the epicenter of our culture, funding most everything else from politics and the media to our religious, educational, and communal/nonprofit organizations. And with this preeminence comes new responsibilities. As business leaders, we can no longer pursue our private ambitions and let the rest of the world take care of itself. Like it or not, the choices we make now profoundly affect the future of our culture – for good or ill.
So how should we run our businesses?
My answer: As important as our jobs are, we need to remember that we’re people first. Then, rejecting the cynical (and false) belief that a successful business and good citizenship are incompatible, we need to treat sound social and ecological practices with the same seriousness as financial return. This is the mission of my organization, the Decency Foundation, where our work is guided by Radical Decency, the values-based approach to living that is the subject of my blog and recently published book.
My personal journey as a radically decent business operator began in the summer of 2005 when I started Eccoes Associates, a multi-disciplinary healing center. Many of the ideas I teach and promote were developed in those early Eccoes years, including the five principles for running a radically decent business that I’m pleased to share in this article.
Lesson 1: Fully commit to your decency goal.
Far too often businesspeople justify their singled-minded pursuit of profit with internal dialogue that goes something like this:
Hey, I’m a good guy/gal. Sure, I’ve done things I’m not proud of; made promises I knew I couldn’t keep to get an edge; competed hard and, at times in not so nice ways. But work is tough and unforgiving. Who, in the end, hasn’t done these things? Like it or not, this is just the way things are in business.
If you want to run a radically decent business, this sort of concession to “reality” just won’t work. Adopting a pick and choose approach – pursuing decency in one part of your business while quietly ignoring it in others – will almost inevitably pull you back to mainstream ways of operating.
This does not mean, however, that self-immolation is required. To the contrary, since decency to self is integral to the philosophy everything can’t, and shouldn’t, be changed at once. What is required instead is determined, unwavering focus on ways of operating that steadily increase your business’ decency over time.
Making money is of course vital but not at the expense of decency, priority 1A, right next to but clearly subordinate running a radically decent enterprise. 80% to 90% of the time, these two goals will be compatible. But in that 10% to 20% zone, the temptation to compromise decency will be strong. And it is precisely in those moments when your decency practice will succeed or fail.
Lesson #2: Be patient, use care in building your staff and support team.
It’s relatively easy to find people who know how to make money or, alternatively, put decency first. But finding both together is much more difficult.
At Eccoes, a good example of a person stuck in indecent “business as usual” ways of operating was our first chiropractor, Brianna. Several months after we opened, she started pushing for a larger share of the profits. Seeing merit in her position, we created a profit-sharing compensation model that was, we thought, a model of Radical Decency. But Brianna was never able to shake the belief that we were taking advantage and, within months of signing the new agreement, she left.
Then there was Mark, a massage therapist who warmly embraced Radical Decency but seemed to confuse these values with a lack of accountability; showing up late for meetings and cancelling sessions to tend to personal matters. Here, too, we placed too much faith in the power of our guiding principles to inspire different behavior. In the end we had to part ways with him as well.
The key takeaway? Pick your co-workers and collaborators with care. Before committing to them, really try to get to know who they are, not just as workers but also as people. To succeed, you need people who can deliver on both sides of the equation – values and productivity.
Lesson #3: Sweat the little stuff.
Running a radically decent business is complicated and challenging. If you aren’t vigilant, you’re likely to slide back into “business as usual” habits one small compromise at a time: Overpromising to make a much-needed sale; overlooking the indecencies of a key employee; allowing authoritarian attitudes to erode your collegiality and cooperative decision-making; quickly pulling back on contributions to the community when profits dip.
To counteract this tendency, our attention to detail at Eccoes was intense. We spent long hours discussing how to run meetings; talk to customers; deal with co-worker conflict; and even (at one memorable meeting) how to keep the bathrooms clean. And while these conversations were a frequent source of frustration, it was time well spent – essential to making Radical Decency our ingrained, habitual way of operating.
Lesson #4: Sweat the big stuff too.
The “big” issues need to be forthrightly and thoughtfully addressed as well. Who “owns” the company and with what associated rights? What is fair and just compensation at all levels? How do you price products fairly? How do you create a truly collegial environment? How do you effectively contribute to decency in the world?
A change in one area of operations, even a significant one – relating to your environmental footprint or wage and work conditions for example – is not enough. Decency also needs to be baked into your most basic corporate structures.
Lesson #5: Don’t let the seduction of success or fear of failure derail you.
Suppose after years of hard work, your earnings are just ok. Now a big contract or strategic alliance comes your way that could, possibly, turbo charge your income and growth but would inevitably compromise the values-based business you’ve worked so hard to create. At that moment, remember why you began this journey in the first place: To experience the ennobling, soul nourishing pleasure that comes with leading a radically decent business. Resist the temptation to settle for anything less.
Written by Jeff Garson.
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