Note To Joe Nocera: Almost There

Joe Nocera of the The NY Times visited the annual Corporate Social Responsibility conference this past week and came away dazzled by the paradoxes. The contradictions would have been hard to miss. For example, what must Joe have wondered as he spoke to Exxon Mobil’s and Chevron’s corporate social responsibility representative the week following the Stern Report catalogue of the catastrophic risks of continuing to treat environmental damage as an externality. Ditto for Pfizer’s ‘do-gooder’ who, as a person undoubtedly seeks to better human kind and cannot be held individually accountable for his company’s maniacal focus on bottom line practices such as kick-back like rewards for doctors who push Pfizer products, research and development trials conducted without objective oversight, campaign funding to politicians who support extending legalized monopoly, product development efforts aimed at minor improvements over fundamental innovation, and marketing campaigns that draw attention away from health risks while misleading consumers about the actual costs of new drugs.

Ditto for Ford Motor Company — whose advertising mantras for years and years (e.g. “No Boundaries”) use the imagery of pristine environmental experiences to push gas guzzling SUVs. Or, how about General Electric? Having fouled the Hudson River for decades, GE poured tens millions of dollars into delaying court-ordered cleanup and miselading the public about it’s actions because, from a shareholder point of view, the costs incurred in delay outweighed the costs of the clean up. McDonalds? The same week it’s representative chatted about the company’s sense of social responsibilty at the NY City confab, McDonalds was also funding the effort to fight a NY City ordinance banning transfats.

The list could go on. Joe could not avoid the paradoxes. When, for example, the McDonald’s rep claimed corporate social responsibility is “core to the way we do business”, Joe noted: “You could wonder about that.”

Nocera picked up this theme again in his conclusion. Having ceaselessly breathed in paradox and contradiction, Joe opined that for companies to become substantively responsible — as opposed to PR-oriented “responsible” — would demand all responsible values become core to those companies’ business models.

Hurrah for Joe! He is dead on correct. Now, Joe, go back, re-read and re-think this declarative statement you make earlier in the article:

“Do shareholders come first — above other stakeholders (another favorite buzzword at the conference… encompassing customers, employees, activists and so on)? Of course.”

Joe, Joe, Joe. There can never — never — be fundamental change to the core business models if shareholders come first and their concerns are the trump card of any discussion.  Never.

But, Joe, listen up carefully. This last comment does not reflect today’s either/or orthodoxy. The orthodoxy embedded in your all-too-facile “of course”. The orthodoxy that insists that either the shareholder comes first. Or the shareholder comes last.

No. The shareholder cannot come last. We saw a long run of the poor consequences from the 1950s through the 1980s of what happens when the shareholder came last. We must pursue shareholder value. We must celebrate shareholder value.

But we must not make shareholder value the trump card of all human affairs conducted by business — especially if we, as I think we should, choose capitalism as an essential philosophy for the well being of the planet.

Joe, if you are to help us change the core business models then you’ve got to erase your robocall “Of course” about the primacy of shareholder value. You’ve got to think again and somehow, some way discover the more profound declaration that the shareholder, like other core constituencies, must abide in equivalency of importance. The shareholder does not come first. Nor does the customer come first. Nor does the employee come first.

The shareholder does not come last. Nor does the customer come last. Nor does the employee come last.

Sustainable and ethical corporations must shift their core business models to this formulation: “Shareholders provide opportunities to the people of the enterprise and their partners to deliver both value and values to customers who generate returns to shareholders who provide opportunities to the people of the enterprise and their partners to deliver both value and values to customers who generate returns to shareholders who….. and on and on.”

That is an ethical and sustainable scorecard. And it reflects this unprecedented and undeniable fact of the 21st century human condition: we live in a world of markets, networks, organizations, friends and families in which our organizations are the new communities that determine the fate of our planet. Our primary ethical challenge can only be met when organizations reintegrate our legitimate concern for value with our equally legitimate concern for other values. Failing this, our most dominant organizations — for-profit enterprises — will continue putting value first and, thereby, continue propelling our global society toward social, environmental, political and economic disasters.

Joe, consider only this illogical aspect of your all-too-easy-and-orthodox “of course”: Who are these shareholders who come first? I’m imagining you are a shareholder. But, let me ask this, are you a customer? Are you an employee?

Put differently, does Joe Nocera the human being come first? Or, do your concerns only matter to the extent that you happen to own stock in one more enterprises?

Should we put one of our dominant shared roles (investor) above the other dominant shared roles of our new age of human kind (employee, customer, family member, friend)? And where does that leave the extraordinary number of folks on this planet who are not investors?

Joe, if we wish to take your constructive insight about changing core business models as an essential condition to the fate of this planet, then we must move beyond either/or-ism to both/and. We must not elevate any role to trump card status while also avoiding subordinating any role as a last concern.

We must learn to practice the new golden rule: “As employees do unto others as customers, investors, family members and friends what we would have them do as employees to us as customers, investors, family members and friends.”

When the employees and executives of Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Pfizer, Ford, General Electric and McDonalds begin practicing this golden rule in earnest, we’ll all witness social responsibility (as well as environmental, medical, legal, political, technical, family, spiritual and economic responsibility) blended into the daily lives of those who make, sell, distribute and service the many good things we depend on for leading our lives.

We will experience and have good things to have that are truly ‘good’.

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