ExxonMobil reported recently that its net income reached $10.3 billion... in just the third quarter. The oil giant is arguably the most profitable corporation in history. Ten billion in three months is historic, but as the New York Times reported, "analysts were not impressed."
Is there a better distillation of the serious problem with our economic system? Not to put too fine a point on it, but the relentless pursuit to satisfy analysts, and not customers or other stakeholders, is killing our economy and our planet.
Earlier this year, I asked a CEO of Fortune 100 company how he dealt with analyst pressure. Even though he answered on stage in a public forum, I'll keep this anonymous in case it was a moment of mistaken honesty. What he said was this: "I don't know any CEO that would want to run a company the way analysts would want us to."
And yet... I keep hearing from top executives at large, profitable companies that they're under "P&L pressure." This pressure comes not from being anywhere near unprofitable; no, it stems from fear of not hitting growth targets for earnings per share. What all senior executives seem to have forgotten -- in some mass delusion -- is that these growth targets are arbitrary.
Who declared 7 or 10 or 15 percent growth in earnings a sacrosanct pursuit, above all other corporate goals -- like the innovation that leads to novel solutions that address customer needs? If you believe the best-selling business books from the last 25 years, companies are "In Search of Excellence" or trying to go from "Good to Great." Nobody writes a paean to the search for 9 percent EPS growth.
Moreover, pure growth targets are even wackier right now. The debt and overleverage explosion artificially inflated our economies and corporate earnings. So expecting growth in earnings today, while we re-set the economy to a more "normal" growth level, is absurd.
Now imagine for a moment that a proverbial alien lands on the planet and looks at the financial statements of many of our largest companies (I know, aliens might have better things to do, but go with it). They would see massive profits, tons of free cash flow, and healthy balance sheets. Since they wouldn't know that the companies had set and missed growth targets, they'd declare them very successful. But not the analysts.
Our big, profitable companies have the resources to do everything they might consider a priority in the long run -- invest in R&D, pay shareholders well, build new businesses and hire people, create a more sustainable enterprise... whatever.
The strategic decisions that would lead to these outcomes require broader thinking, not quarterly focus. But the pressure to "impress analysts" means that leaders can't pursue the long-term perspective that creates truly lasting, great, and sustainable organizations. It's a strategic and operational straight-jacket.
A few leaders -- from companies such as Google and Unilever -- have told Wall Street that they won't provide "guidance" anymore. In essence, they'll report their results to GAAP standards and as the SEC, FASB, and other quasi-regulatory bodies require... but they won't answer to analysts. Not coincidentally, these CEOs are also deep sustainability thinkers.
I have a sneaking suspicion that most CEOs and CFOs would enjoy this kind of freedom from analyst conversations. Wouldn't it be more personally rewarding for them -- and all the layers of management beneath them -- to build and lead fundamentally more profitable organizations (versus maximizing short-term profits)?As Unilever CEO Paul Polman told the crowd at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January,
The worse thing would be to do what is probably right for the long-term benefit of society and being forced out of that because you don't get the short-term results... I want people to focus on cash flow, which is a much longer-term measure than short-term profit.
Sustainability is about the real long-term health of both the planet and enterprise. I hope we see more leaders walking away from these absurd pressures that keep them from building innovative, profitable, sustainable companies.
This post first appeared at Harvard Business Online.