You better watch out,
You better not cry,
Better not pout,
I'm telling you why:
Santa Claus is coming to town.
He's making a list,
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out
Who's naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town.
It’s that time of year, when at least when I was a kid you best minded your p’s and q’s lest the red-capped visitor soon to arrive from the North Pole leave you a lump of coal instead of a shiny new toy.
A lot of business writers are going about warning companies to mind their social responsibilities if they want to avoid being paid in lumps of coal. As co-author of Firms of Endearment, a recent bestseller dealing with the issue of corporate morality, I want to tell you why much of what people who promote the doctrine of corporate social responsibility is misdirected.
Let’s start with the first two sentences of Firms of Endearment:
This book is not about corporate social responsibility. It is about sound management.
We started the book with those two sentences because we believed that a moral platform is generally not a strong strategic platform for building and growing a company.
Nobel economist Milton Friedman said – infamously so in many people’s minds – that the only social responsibility of a business is building shareholder wealth. While I have criticized Friedman for too narrow a view of corporate social responsibility, at its core his declaration of a company’s social purpose is sound.
The term “purpose” has become a big IN word in discussions about what companies should do for society. It appears explicitly in numerous book titles and a steady stream of articles about what companies need to do to justify their existences. The subtext is that companies with a purpose are superior from a social perspective to companies that only work to create profits for their owners.
My question is, “Why is building shareholder wealth not a valid purpose?” Whether it is done nobly or not is another issue.
The central theme of Firms of Endearment is about achieving business success (call it shareholder wealth building, if you like) by aligning company needs with those of five core stakeholder groups. Notice that I use the term “aligning”, not “balance.”
Times are when investors’ interests take precedence and other times when employees’ or customers’ needs come first. The issue is not who ranks first among stakeholders but does a company operate in a fashion in which no stakeholder gains at the uncompensated expense of other stakeholders.
Firms of Endearment was the first book written for general business audiences about formally making the needs of multiple stakeholder groups a strategic platform for business development and operations. It is a book about sound management, not about what various people might regard as a company’s moral obligations to society.
Companies that base their operations on a multiple stakeholder business model are liberally found throughout “Best Companies to Work for” lists. They enjoy uncommonly low customer turnover and are widely applauded for the positive contributions they make to the communities in which they operate. But none of that means that these companies are driven by abstract moral objectives. Survivability and profitability are their first order of business, as well it should be on behalf of a company’s investors.
But what best serves investors is often wrapped up with what best serves all core stakeholders.
Companies that subscribe to the multiple stakeholder business model tend to experience lower employee turnover, higher productivity, deeper customer loyalty, better relationships with suppliers, stronger community support and lower marketing costs. All that being the case, why wouldn’t a company want to make the multiple stakeholder business model the strategic foundation of its operations?
The answer to that question must be reserved for another post, for it is indeed puzzling why such a sure-fire way of building a company is not more broadly followed. However, I was motivated to write this post after reading yet one more article about how company operations should be rooted in “purpose” with the implication that making a profit for shareholders is not a worthy “purpose.”
That theme has grown tiresome for me.
Besides, what one person may consider a worthy purpose might well be considered by another person as an unworthy purpose.
So, it’s time to begin stop thinking about corporate social responsibility as a moral imperative. Instead, as companies like Costco, Starbucks, Whole Foods, Patagonia and others we researched for Firms of Endearment have found, thinking outside the traditional the investor box can be a great way to build shareholder wealth. And to serve the interests of members of all core stakeholder groups.
The bottom line here is that management best serves shareholders when its actions are aligned with the interests of all stakeholders. There is no need to think about corproate social responsibilty as a separate matter. It's about what makes for sound management that best serves owners' interests. The multiple stakeholder business model does just that.