Companies & Industries

From Success to Significance


Columnist Dov Seidman explains how significance should power 21st-century business leadership

In the era of inspirational leadership, competitive advantage is being derived not only from pragmatic values such as quality, but also from humanistic, social, and environmental values such as integrity, transparency, sustainability, and trust. In my previous column, I explained how inspiration has emerged as the most important leadership habit (BusinessWeek.com, 8/5/08). In this column, I want to show how the source of 21st-century leadership—and the inspiration that fuels it—has shifted from success to significance, as viewed through the prism of "should."

One of the most powerful applications of "should" recorded in business exists in a 1942 document authored by Robert Wood Johnson, the son of the founder of Johnson & Johnson (JNJ). General Johnson, as he was called after his World War II service, wrote a one-page document that came to be known as the Johnson & Johnson "Credo."

The document codifies the company's socially responsible approach to conducting business. It states that the company's first responsibility is to the people who use its products and services; the second responsibility is to its employees; the third is to the community and environment; and the fourth is to the stockholders. In concluding the Credo, General Johnson emphasized his belief that if the first three responsibilities are met, the subject of the fourth—the shareholders—should be well served.

More "Should," Less "Could"

To thrive today, individuals and organizations need to operate more in the language of "should" and less in the language of "could." Asking "What can we do?" encourages decisions and actions that are guided by rules. But there is little in rules that inspire. Rules are to be complied with, and they tend to breed a culture in which people find ways to live with the rules or to circumvent them.

Asking "What should we do?" is entirely different. This question encourages decisions and actions that are consistent with individual and organizational values. Should transcends rules and inspires individuals to do more than merely comply. Yet, should inspires us to comply with the rules because doing so is consistent with our values. In this way, should does double-duty: The mindset inspires us to do more than merely follow the rules while preventing us from doing any less than complying with the rules. Why? Because to betray the rules is to betray our own values.

A should mindset qualifies as a competitive advantage in the 21st century for two reasons.

First, organizations and individuals are judged as much by the process of how they behave as by the result their behaviors deliver. This is the case thanks to hypertransparency: People can see deeper into the inner workings of companies and organizations. And because they can see deeper, they care about the materials, ingredients, and the process through which products and services are created. Second, business craves creativity and innovation, and should thinking frees us from the constraints of rules-based thought by unleashing new pathways of exploration and possibility.

The Beyond Movement

The language of should certainly has served Johnson & Johnson well. The company's Credo has become a cornerstone of the company's culture, not because it's framed on the wall of every office, but because it remains present in day-to-day discussions and decision-making at every level of the company. When a Johnson & Johnson employee says, "That's a Credo issue," the previous conversation stops and the discussion immediately focuses on the "shoulds" of the issue. The employees resolve the Credo issue before resuming their original debates.

Leading organizations and executives understand the importance of fostering that perspective in their employees. But how do you do that? Consider how two employees, both of whom are bricklayers, describe their jobs. They do the exact same job, but the first employee says his job is to lay bricks. The second says he is building a cathedral. Which employee would you rather have working for you and your organization? If it's the second employee, how are you getting him to see the cathedral each day?

The need to cultivate a workforce of cathedral-builders helps explain why more companies assert that they are "beyond" their products or "more than" their service offerings. The value of should is evident in these discussions and in what I see developing into a movement in business, which I call the "more than" and "beyond" movement that Johnson & Johnson's Credo helped to pioneer.

The Human Touch

What I have come to believe is that more companies are reflecting on the Credo, getting in touch with a deeper set of values—the humanistic, social, and environmental values I mention above—because they really are deep.

Oil and gas company BP's (BP) mission is now called "beyond petroleum." "Beyond petroleum does not mean that we are," among other things, "focusing only on the products that we produce and sell," BP asserts as part of its brand value statements. "Beyond petroleum is about…delivering performance without trade-offs…innovating, improving, making a difference."

BP's competitor Chevron (CVX) taps the power of "human energy," a phrase it has trademarked. "Meeting the world's energy needs—today and tomorrow—is an issue that concerns all of us. Only by sharing ideas and working together can we meet the challenges," Chevron explains of its willyoujoinus.com, an online-forum part of its "Human Energy" campaign that allows people to join in on the energy discussion, interact with thought leaders, and contribute to the solutions.

Cisco (CSCO) has also embraced our hyperconnectedness with the "Human Network." "On the human network," it says, "anything is possible…And see why when we're together, we're more powerful than we could ever be apart."

Dow Chemical's (DOW) campaign "The Human Element" promotes the company's vision of "addressing some of the most pressing economic, social, and environmental concerns facing the global community in the coming decade," according to a Dow press release. One of the campaign's creators explained that the assertion "is about reconnecting the company with the faces and values of the people Dow touches in a positive way."

When Dow announced "The Human Element" campaign two years ago, the company's vice-president of global communications and reputation emphasized, "This is more than an ad campaign to our company. It is a statement to the world and, more importantly, to ourselves about the future direction of our business."

What Dow seems to recognize, in essence, is that significance is not measured by merely financial success but by being other-regarding.

Proving the General Right

Skeptics may believe that pursuing significance may somehow hinder success. According to Johnson & Johnson's experience, however, the opposite is true. By getting clear on its very foundation, business leaders are inspired by a long-term view and can avoid taking action that is counter to that. By enlisting others in that vision and inspiring them to act according to shared values, they have the power to not only survive but to thrive.

There's still much work to do. Early findings from a study conducted by my company, LRN, found that when asked what kind of employee they value most, nearly 90% of executive respondents identified employees who are "inspired by a higher mission or purpose." Yet, when asked what kind of employee the company they work for values most, the number who said those who are "inspired by a higher mission or purpose" dropped to 33%, while the number who said those who "conform and do what is told" and are motivated by "personal and organizational incentives/perks" grew to 35% and 32%, respectively.

We will see—because we can see and we want to see—which organizations live up to their assertions. Regardless, a few things are becoming clear. Companies are, in essence, communities of people. Greater connectedness is driving business to become more humanistic in nature. There is little in rules that connects people. "Should" is the language that enables business to look through a human lens. All things should unite and connect people. Johnson & Johnson understood this long before it became in vogue.

"The last sentence of the Credo…is the most important sentence," Johnson & Johnson former Vice-President, General Counsel, Roger Fine, explained to me in 2005. "It says, 'When we operate according to these principles, the stockholders should realize a fair return.' What that means is that the Credo is not a brake on our success; it's the engine of our success. Everything in J&J's history proves the General right."

Business Exchange related topics:

Leadership

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