THE BLOG

Three Marks of a Rich Company

05/23/2012 03:22 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2012

Years ago, I was lucky enough to tour Israel and Palestine with a long-time mentor of mine who just happened to be an expert in the area's ancient history and current, complicated situation. As part of our tour, we stopped in on Elias Chacour, a remarkable Palestinian Catholic priest who has spent his life building bridges of peace, reconciliation, and justice over a 30-plus year career in a poor Palestinian town.

But to really understand this man's passion, you must get this important detail: One of his earliest memories is the leveling of his ancestral village by Israeli soldiers during Israel's war of independence. From the seed of that searing memory of tanks and bulldozers knocking down his village and tearing up his family's olive grove eventually came surprising fruit. After years of understandable confusion and anger, he dreamed of a school in which Jewish, Christian and Muslim children would advance academically and learn to love and accept each other at the same time.

Chacour told us of the twists and turns his story had taken from the moment of that vision to the reality we saw before us. On a hill in the West Bank sits a thriving school, recognized as one of the top academies in all of Israel, with children of Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Druze backgrounds learning and playing together. At times, driven by his vision, he had taken drastic measures to fight systems and structures that stood in his way -- like the time he traveled to Washington, DC and cold-called James Baker, the sitting Secretary of State, at his own house in an effort to influence the Israeli government. If only Twitter had existed back then and Chacour had snapped a picture Mrs. Baker's face when she saw a bearded Palestinian priest in full priestly garb waiting on her front step...

At the end of his talk, many in our group instinctively did what Americans do -- we reached for our wallets, assuming that a financial contribution would be the appropriate gesture of appreciation.

The priest stood back, almost appalled. "Please," he said, "I don't want your money. If our story has inspired you, I ask for your friendship. For if all you have is money to give, you are very poor indeed."

Leaders tell me all the time that their company's purpose is to generate great returns for owners and investors. If that's all a company does then they may be rich in profits, but poor in spirit. If you are in it only for the money, don't be surprised when everyone else -- your employees, your customers -- are mercenaries, only in it for the money as well. Don't be surprised when they misbehave. They will. Everybody misbehaves when self-interest is the primary interest.

In my work with leadership teams, I often get involved in helping leaders shape the futures of their organizations. We spend hours reflecting on what the organization's past, present conditions, and future opportunities mean for the course they should chart. We run numbers. We examine data. We hurt our brains in multiple ways.

It's all worthwhile, but it's not enough. Because at the end of the exercise, we always come back to the same question: How are we going to get the rest of the organization to buy into this direction? If all we have to show for our work is spreadsheets and models, that conversation is almost guaranteed to fall flat. You can almost hear the sound of people's minds switching off during that company-wide presentation. Click. Click. Click.

People are not coin operated machines. While they certainly want to do well financially and be in a company that produces business results, money isn't enough to make the human being run. Oh yes, it's necessary. Show me a company in financial distress and I'll show you a whole pack of people who have sincere interest in the numbers. But for the vast majority of people, the numbers are the means not the ends. They want something more.

What do they want?

  • They want to change the world in some way. Put your mind to solving the obvious problems of health care or putting life-changing technology in people's hands or providing a place for people to have once-in-a-lifetime experience or eradicating some awful disease.
  • They want to be on an A-Team. Capable people think in terms of careers, not just jobs so they're looking for roles that give them pedigree. Figure out how to make your organization the breeding ground for the best thinkers and most ground breaking ideas. Convince people who you're dead serious about creating a place where they can get positioned for doing engaging, rewarding work throughout their whole careers because they've worked at your place.
  • My first boss, to whom I owe my career (thanks again, John), used to say about someone in our company, "He's good people." After getting over the strange syntax, I began to understand what he meant and why it mattered. Most people want to be associated with other good people. Since they spend the majority of their waking hours with coworkers, they want to be able to trust, respect, and yes, even admire them. Bob Sutton's "No Asshole Rule" is a good start. Who really wants to feel like they're living a perpetual episode of Survivor? But most of us would like to raise the bar a bit beyond "non-asshole" and maybe reach for a "good people" standard.

So stop for a moment and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Beyond making a buck, what are we all about in our organization? Why should the world care that we exist?
  • How clearly does that purpose resonate in our own teams? When they talk about their work to their friends, what do they really say?
  • What are we doing as leaders on a daily, weekly, monthly, and annual basis to keep our organization on purpose? What stories do we collect and share? What behaviors do we recognize? Of what sorts of behavior are we absolutely intolerant because it flies in the face of what we're about?

Earn money. It's necessary and can have huge power for good. But don't allow your organization to only earn money. Because, to paraphrase a wise man from Palestine, organizations who only produce profits are very poor indeed.