Businesses are being pulled in every direction; they follow trends, jump on bandwagons (a rainbow version of your logo for Pride Day anyone?), technology, agile work, work from home, four-day week, giant bean bags, how about a slide? The pace of change is intense and often when done badly, these business changes can feel like an umpire-less high-intensity tennis match, leaving the observers with cricked necks and little knowledge of the actual score. We’re moving at a pace that has overtaken our human ability to adapt and the fact is that the pace will continue to increase. As humans, we need something to hang on to as a base.
Businesses used to focus purely on money, product and customers. In just 40 years, the focus of many businesses P+L sheets has flipped from tangible assets (products and stock) to the far more valuable intangible assets (brand and IP), with some of the more extreme examples being the likes of Uber, which doesn’t own a single car, and WeWork, which barely owns any actual office space. These examples are businesses that have brought their founders a lot of money and are great concepts, but profit for the founders was at the very core of their businesses, typically at the expense of others. Despite Uber’s success, many economists can't see a way for the business to go from a growth company to a profitable company. While Softbank works out what to do with WeWork, Adam Neumann skips off into the distance with billions. There are many views on how these businesses will fare, though I think we’re looking at a unicorn bubble similar to that seen in the dot-com boom.
Businesses need to be better than politicians and frankly often are. We live in a world where thin-[orange] skinned narcissists have access to the nuclear button. Where the UK Prime Minister can’t or won't say how many kids he has. Politicians like soundbites and spin; their only real goal is to stay in power for another four years, so even matters as serious as climate change are neglected from left to right. As business leaders, we can see a long-term vision for our businesses and we all want to make sure there’s a market or even a world for our business to exist in.
In today’s world, the difference between a great business with longevity and a mediocre business is the values the business is built around. Uber and WeWork were built almost purely around the values of the directors’ financial goals, whereas Tesla’s mission and values to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport have led them to release their patents to their competitors because they realized they couldn’t change the world alone, even though their competitors didn’t necessarily share their values.
Good employees know they can demand more, and businesses are rightly being pushed to operate in a responsible manner. Great businesses are going beyond responsible and giving true value back into the world — they know how to turn customers into fans and build a team of staff who believe in their mission and values. We're still hearing "Millennials will only work for organizations that mirror their values" like it’s new information, but some Millennials are hitting 40 now. Older generations seem to be in the habit of infantilizing them or indeed talking about an entire generation as if they're all the same person. Millennials are talked about as some misunderstood group of ‘snowflakes,’ but the reality is they simply do actually give a shit, so they'd like to work for a business that isn't making the planet any worse. It seems fair enough to me, and they’re now in senior enough positions to make the change stick.
Following Millennials, Gen Z are now demanding their voices are heard. According to research by Vice Magazine, when asked what was most important to them, 74% answered that their values defined them as individuals (compared to just 14% of us outside of their age group). As a group, they're ready to collectively sort out the dreadful mess in which we've left the world and are optimistic that they can do it (Greta Thunberg being a great example). If our businesses aren’t obviously doing good and demonstrating good values, they’re simply not going to work for us.
The best businesses we've worked with wear their values on their sleeve; they're not tucked away at the back of brand guidelines, they are the core of their business. They inform decisions. They're unashamedly repeated to their teams, who buy into them and live them. These businesses have amazing and engaged staff; if you want to gauge the temperature (and ultimately profitability) of a business, speak to its employees.