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The Evolution of Capitalism: Profit or Purpose?

HR Magazine, 26 January 2022

The Evolution of Capitalism

Profit or Purpose?

Adam Kingl

Is profit the fundamental criterion for a business?  As capitalism is evolving under our feet, and that evolution is accelerating since Covid, we’re seeing a shift of emphasis from the pre-eminence of shareholders to stakeholders: customers, employees and communities.  Now, I want to make a very important distinction.  This does not mean that shareholders are getting the short end of the stick in terms of reward.  If companies refocus or even redefine how they add value to stakeholders, then shareholders are rewarded too.  

At a macrolevel, this shift that we are just starting to observe is essentially a rebalance in corporate focus from outcomes to outputs.  If we think of outcomes as share price and profit, we cannot deny that these are good things to have.  But I can’t storm into the office and say that my focus today will be to maximise my share price. What am I supposed to DO??  A blinkered focus on share price creates drift away from the reasons a company was founded in the first place: to identify a market need and to serve customers brilliantly.  Creating value for customers and serving them better are outputs that companies can rally behind, can guide whether to spend more time on activity A or activity B.  My outputs will lead to the outcome of enhancing my bottom line.  But the outcome is not my daily focus – this is a subtle but hugely important point.  

Does this mean that the CEO would not want to earn a profit?  Absolutely not. Business has to survive and thrive.  Here’s the rub.  Most businesses were founded on an idea of introducing an exciting product to the world, serving a previously undiscovered market need, bettering a community or creating employment opportunities.  But then financial analysts’ opinions grew in importance to investors, with their use of various ratios that are useful shortcuts in assessing company health.  However, we must remember that these shortcuts are only performance indicators for today; they do not assess if the business is closer to or farther from achieving its purpose, closer to or farther from achieving long-term or ‘moon shot’ objectives.

Chasing ratio optimization is a short-term game.  Before one knows it, the purpose of the business is about tacitly, implicitly pleasing analysts.  Making decisions toward long-term objectives takes a back seat, and sustained success can become much harder to achieve over time. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened on a massive scale.  At an inflection point in the second half of the twentieth century, as analysts’ and shareholders’ voices became louder, the CFOs’ and Investor Relations’ departments began to dominate the c-suite conversations. CEOs’ compensations grew increasingly related to share price and less on customer value indicators.  The focus on outputs dropped down the totem pole in terms of time and attention in favour of outcomes.  One could argue that the Great Recession of 2007-09 was caused, or at least made much worse, by this shift in focus.   

Companies that remain focused on their purpose are rewarded by investors and customers.  Aggregate research has proven that such purpose-focused firms significantly outperform their rivals.  The authors of the book, Firms of Endearment, explored those organisations who are in the top ten percent in relation to focusing on their purpose, community, customers and employees.  Their research revealed that, over the decade ending in June 2006, these firms returned 1,025% to their shareholders, compared to 122% return on investment by the S&P 500 overall.  Just to be clear, this study therefore quantified that purpose-driven organisations reward their investors better than the market average by a multiple of ten!  

Separate research published in Organization Science reached a similar conclusion.  Faculty from Harvard, Pennsylvania and Columbia Universities surveyed half a million employees across 429 firms.  While these academics did not find correlation between purpose alone and financial performance, they proved that companies with strong purpose and high clarity from management exhibit stronger financial and stock market performance.  The implication is that one condition of commercial success is that an organisation’s employees understand and believe in their collective purpose and have a clear path as to how that purpose will be achieved.  

Perhaps our ultimate question is: Are purpose and profit a zero-sum game?  Recent research indicates this is not necessarily so, and the two forces may even serve each other.  A huge amount of dialogue has attempted to answer this question both in media and in conferences.  The opinions are typically more definitive than one may guess and often resemble the sentiment: ‘The most successful companies, both in profitability and longevity, are the ones who recognise the absolute necessity of profits as well as the equally high necessity of having a purpose beyond shareholders’ wealth.’

Adam Kingl (adamkingl.com) is the author of Next Generation Leadership and is an Adjunct Lecturer at the UCL School of Management, where this theme of the evolution of capitalism is explored in the School’s executive education practice and notably in its Building Competitive Advantage through Sustainability course: https://www.mgmt.ucl.ac.uk/executive-education. 

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Inspire Magazine: Next Generation Leadership Book Launch

Inspire Magazine, The Møller Institute: Issue 4, Leadership Mindsets, p. 16

Book Launches

Next Generation Leadership: How To Ensure Young Talent Will Thrive With Your Organisation

  • Adam Kingl

We are on the verge of a seismic shift in a world of work.  Why are we toil, the employer-employee social contract, leadership, retirement and the nature of business itself are changing before our eyes in ways as least as significant as what humanity and served in the early days of the industrial revolution. And it all starts with understanding Generation Y.

Generation Ys (or Millennials), are youngest workers have been slandered for a decade. You’ve heard the accusations before: Gen Ys are indolent, spoiled, coddled, uninterested in climbing the corporate ladder, ever texting, indifferent about what it takes to succeed. Those who aren’t quite so critical merely laugh off these generalisations saying, ‘Oh we were like them when we were young too.’

In reality, to be so dismissive us to ignore macro-trends that have forever altered fundamental models of work and employment.

These trends include insecure retirement, the failures of shareholder capitalism and longer lifespans. What we observe in Generation Y is merely the first, widely shared rejection of their inheritance—the world as we know it.

This rejection manifested itself in what confounds, annoys and terrifies human resources department the world over: scarce loyalty to one’s employer, a trivialising of financial benefits, a hue and cry for work-life balance, a craving for constant development, and an insistence on a powerful, shared, authentic corporate purpose. Kingl’s research in his new book Next Generation Leadership explores what’s behind these shifts in the character of the emerging workforce and the implications for how we might need to manage and lead differently today. How might we recruit, retain and develop top talent?

Most importantly, if Gen Y indeed requires a different style of leadership, then as Gen Y assumes managerial positions themselves, then the nature of leadership and of business itself will also change over the next few decades in irrevocable and profound ways.

“Nuggets of gold which challenge the way we should lead our multi generational teams / organisations.”

https://indd.adobe.com/view/bb16cf03-6c8a-4d66-8ae3-90c406118980

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Empowerment and Delegation

I’ve been asked recently by a number of clients to explore empowerment and delegation with them, particularly in the age of working from home, and the more I thought about it the more I consider that empowerment isn’t a technical or tactical challenge.

There aren’t many specific suggestions or behaviours to master in order to be better at delegation and empowerment. Instead, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s more of a psychological barrier if we find that our organisations and leaders struggle with empowerment. Namely, the issue is what Carol Dweck referred to as ‘The Growth Mindset’ – that leaders must role model challenge and experimentation as a springboard for growth, stretch and fulfilment. 

Therefore, I challenge leaders to ask themselves, ‘Do I rely on my expertise and experience to give me answers to future challenges?  Do I need my people to do things in exactly the way that I would do it?  Or am I willing to give up that control to say that my team may come up with solutions that I wouldn’t have come up with, that could be just as good or better, but that requires the confidence to let go?’

If we really want our people ultimately to grow, to be the leaders that they want to be, and that we would wish them to be, we have to cease relying so much on instructing people how they should do the job.  In being clear about the outcomes that we require, we have to be open to the possibility that our team will adapt, evolve, and figure out new solutions themselves. In so doing, leaders facilitate the capability of autonomic or evolutionary adaptability, one of the most critical new norms that organisations would like to practice but struggle to embed. 

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Professional Services and the Resignation Crisis

The press has recently been discussing what appears to be a resignation crisis that we’re facing globally.  After all, there are four million people who quit their jobs in April in the U.S., a 20-year high. There were a record 10 million job vacancies in June. A Microsoft study indicated that 41 percent of the global workforce are considering resigning within one year, and a Fast Company article suggested that number may be as high as 55 percent.

 

The implications of the resignation crisis are especially dire for professional services firms. I’m thinking of management consultancies and law firms who have a partnership model in particular. Initially, the partnership model only worked if graduates knew they were on an 8-12 year journey to make partner, but what if those graduates don’t care about making partner anymore?

 

This is a potential existential crisis if that young talent is considering leaving every two to five years, which research for my book, Next Generation Leadership, has shown. I talk to firms all the time who are seriously questioning their philosophy of work and the architecture of how they are composed. We have to reconsider the models in our organisations, particularly in partnership models, and think about how can we still imbue people with purpose and values so that they will stay a little bit longer, but also create those organisational designs that are not necessarily ‘up or out’.  That must involve working on purpose and legacy, particularly with senior partners, those in the last trimester of their careers, who might otherwise be thinking, ‘Well, there’s very little else that you can teach me.’

 

I would want to get this stakeholder group together ask them to think about the type of firm that they wish to leave for their successors.  How might it be possible to have more fluid movement in and out of the firm? In that way, top talent might include those who are en route to becoming partners, or might become future clients, or might become suppliers or partners, or might ultimately want to work with you on a contractor basis. After all, over sixty percent of the world’s work is now organised according to projects.

Top talent might even want to return as senior executives later on in your company’s life. In other words, you might get two, three bites of the cherry from that same person who might come in and out of your organisation with greater dexterity that most companies currently would tolerate. It really involves rethinking how you work, but I do think that it is necessary to have that conversation now.

 

 

 

 

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What Is Strategic Innovation?

When I talk to executives about innovation, they generally go right to products and services.  In other words, their default is to explore those innovation questions that everyone asks themselves.  But what questions are neglected as a result?

If you are a senior executive, what are the things that you can affect, that you can change, that no one else in your organisation can change? And generally the answer to that question ultimately is strategic or business model innovation, challenging assumptions implicit in the questions: who are your customers, what are you offering them and how are you offering it.

If you can change the assumptions in those questions you are playing a different game from your competitors and you are giving yourself an inimitable competitive advantage.

Take for example Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Enterprise decided to play in a  completely different sphere. Rather than primarily trying to serve air travellers, they served customers who were suffering from car breakdowns. Now, that implied that they would be putting their depots and their offices in residential areas rather than in expensive airports, so now all of a sudden, they were competing in an area that for a long time had no competitors and offered them cost advantages.

So do consider, when you can think about innovation and if you are a senior leader, what are the business model innovation questions that you can ask yourself so that you can claim advantages that would take many, many years for your competitors to imitate? And in so doing, you truly become a game-changing innovator in your industry.

Adam Kingl is Adjunct Faculty at the UCL School of Management, Hult Ashridge International Business School, an Associate of the Moller Institute at Cambridge University, and the author of Next Generation Leadership (HarperCollins 2020).  www.adamkingl.com 

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Considering the End of Lockdown

What should companies be thinking about regarding their talent as we (possibly?) near the end of lockdown?

First, think about the physical space of your company office.  A lot of organisations are shedding commercial real estate.  The implication is that employees returning to the office are going to be smooshed together in ever more constricted open plans.  Well, that may work for some people but not for others, so do consider also providing flexible, private space.  You have introverts; you have neurodiverse colleagues.  They will, at some points in the workday, need time to themselves.

Second, think about how you may extend flexible work, giving people the opportunity to continue to work from home at least part of the time.  For many industries and functions, an option to work from home is never going to go away now and in fact will be expected from many if not most employees.  For example, over half of the U.S. workforce was already working from home at least part of the time before lockdown happened.  Most companies have already demonstrated that it can and does work.

Third, when your colleagues are back in the workplace, you now have the opportunity to socialise again.  You probably have many employees (hundreds or thousands in some cases) who joined your company during lockdown and have never yet had the opportunity really to get to know their colleagues in social situations.  To do so build trust, and that helps to reinforce culture.

This brings me to my fourth point.  If you want to build a stronger culture post-lockdown, create opportunities for your people to observe important meetings with important clients and customers.  And in that way, they start to understand how you work when it really matters, which is the true test of organisational authenticity.  This initiative can be easier when you are physically co-located, so seize the opportunity to demonstrate that being the office does have its advantages.  Get people together to observe the behaviours you desire and need for a culture that wins and has fun together, where people would not wish to be anywhere else.             

Adam Kingl is Adjunct Faculty at the UCL School of Management, Ashridge-Hult International Business School, an Associate of the Moller Institute at Cambridge University, and the author of Next Generation Leadership (HarperCollins 2020).  www.adamkingl.com