10.27.2006

Cut-Throat and Caring

During my senior year at Wharton in 1994-1995, I looked around for a place where I could meld my business interests with my Christian faith and found The Enterprise Center, a small non-profit organization in West Philadelphia.  While I couldn't have predicted then just how satisfying, stimulating, and rewarding my ten years would be there, I knew even as a fresh-faced college kid that I would be happiest in a place where I could apply my cut-throat mindset and equally cut-throat training not just to maximizing the financial bottom line but to maximizing other, fuzzier bottom lines, like community and diversity and environment.  It made perfect sense to me, but in a milieu that produces the world's best i-bankers, a lot of people thought I'd sprouted another head. 

Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was in the sweet spot of a sea change in business thinking.  In the two decades since the "greed is good" mantra peaked with the 1987 movie, "Wall Street," we've seen the rise to prominence of a kinder, gentler capitalism.  The disaster that was Enron might have demonstrated that cut-throat capitalism was still alive and well, but it also left a bad taste in mainstream America's mouth and opened their minds to a more inclusive, progressive way of doing business.

What is most pleasing to me is that the pendulum hasn't swung too far to the other side.  After all, I'm still as cut-throat in my mindset and I haven't forgotten all of my equally cut-throat training from Wharton.  I am delighting, then, in seeing how such a mindset is still in play, just in better ways.  Take the environment, for example.  It is likely that in our lifetimes, we'll see a tax on carbon.  And the more visionary companies, anticipating this, have worked hard to minimize their carbon footprint, not just because they want to save the environment, but because they're preparing for the day when it'll save them money.  You're even starting to see some members of heavy industry lobby for a carbon tax, instead of dragging their feet against it, because they've geared up their operations for such a world, and they know they'll thus derive an advantage over competitors of theirs who haven't. 

Business Week just ran a cover story on "karma capitalism," or the ascendancy of Indian-born management thinkers who articulate a management worldview that is broader than the typical shareholder focus that dominates most Fortune CEO's.  Whether influenced by the spiritual teachings of the Bhagavad Gita or by the messy realities of an Indian nation that is predominantly poor and politically corrupt, these Indian business sages, like C.K. Prahalad and Ram Charan, espouse such principles as putting purpose above self-interest and answering to multiple stakeholders rather than just your shareholders.  In other words, it's good for your business and good for your soul if you're not just stomping on people and principles in the hunt for one more buck. 

Thirdly, I've seen an ascendancy of good, solid non-profit management.  Of course, I'm biased because I run in these circles and because Philadelphia is noteworthy in this field, but nevertheless I think this still registers as a trend.  People are just more comfortable with companies pursuing social good for reasons besides selfless charity, and the social service sector being equal parts cool mind and hot heart.  Gone are the days where the business acumen was the purview of the corporates and the "save the world" mentality the purview of the do-gooders, and never the twain shall meet.  Instead, you have some people running caring campaigns talking about how they can be used as competitive advantages and other people running homeless shelters talking about balanced scorecards and performance metrics.

These are just three examples of a larger revolution that says no to a bifurcation of profit and purpose, of for-profit mechanisms and non-profit causes, of cold-blooded assassins and shiny happy do-gooders.  When I started down that path, I didn't know where I was going, nor that I was being joined in spirit and body by so many others.  I just knew that, though the road was lonely at the time, it seemed the best road for me.  Maybe I'm too secular to join a commune and rail against free trade, and too wimpy to evict my grandma to turn a profit, but I'm OK with that.  I just hope that the path I've trod is faithful to my God and to the unique set of gifts and experiences He has given me.  And I hope even more will join me on the path, that together we can be equally cut-throat and caring in getting the right things done in the right ways for the right reasons. 


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