The Shared Purpose


There is a lot out there about culture. Much of it like this recent piece from Michael Mankins from Bain is good, but like most it is very incomplete. He describes cultures that might make work more interesting, or fun, or unusual but those are hardly the things that drive people to dig deep and collaborate to take things to new heights … and sustain them. People need more than that if they are going to put the team’s – or the company’s – interests ahead of their own. Jon Miller and his cohorts get to the point in their outstanding book “Creating a Kaizen Culture” when they write about the need for a “shared purpose”.

The shared purpose of the company is the goal that gives it a moral and ethical reason for being. It is what makes it possible to believe that our work life has some value to the world other than simply being a vehicle for us to make money – to look back on a carrer and take pride in it. It’s only possible for folks to not worry about who gets the credit for ideas and efforts when they believe that something bigger than themselves is at stake.

The pathetic 1990’s Jack Welch goal – to maximize shareholder value – is perhaps the most inadequate ‘shared purpose’ one can hope to pursue. Even he didn’t care about maximizing shareholder value except as a means to personal gain. I mean … who would possibly be motivated by such a goal? Who would give up anything for such a goal? Why should they unless there were something in it for them? There is no redeeming moral or ethical value in simply making some other guy rich; so the only reason someone would pursue such a goal is if they thought that guy would, in turn, make them richer. That creates a culture of selfishness, rather than one of shared higher purpose.

GM’s “Engine Charlie” Wilson elucidated the traditional shared purpose of business in his famously misquoted statement to the Senate during his confirmation hearings as Secretary of Defense back in 1953. He actually said, “for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa;” mangled in popular culture into ‘What's good for General Motors is good for the country’ - a distinction without much of a difference.

For years legions of businessmen went to work for big corporations steeped in the conviction of Charlie’s words. The success of GM or GE or any of the rest of business was good for everyone. The rising tide lifted all boats. Their success meant more jobs, better products, more money pumped into the economy spawning more jobs for suppliers and all of the businesses befitting from the money their growing number of employees would spend. This is the essence of capitalism – the free enterprise system; and these guys could all take moral sustenance from knowing their work was good for all of the stakeholders and, therefore, good for America.

There was – is – nothing wrong with the principle. It is the heart of the American economic engine, but there are a couple of flies in the ointment. A big one is free trade. Charlie’s words were spoken in a day when the bulk of the GM employees were American workers, but with free trade, the jobs created, the suppliers spawned and the small businesses taking in the money those folks earn from their participation in the company’s success aren’t Americans so much as they used to be. The vice versa – that what is good for GM is good for the country is not quite so true. What’s good for GM is apt to be more good for China, or Mexico, or Vietnam than it is for America. The ‘shared purpose’ for GM staffers – the greater good that drives them to work as a team for a greater moral good beyond their personal enrichment – is quite a bit tougher to rationalize.

But the bigger problem – and the huge difference between Charlie Wilson’s moral rationalization for business and a lean culture – is the arrogance of management. Hourly folks were excluded from sharing the purpose.

If you listened to the old school managers, they would tell you, yes we have 500 employees but we have to lay off 100 of them; and we must do so for high moral purposes. You see, if we keep them the company may fail and all 500 will be out of work; so we have to be tough and let 100 go so the remaining 400 can have jobs. We don’t like laying people off because we are actually very nice guys; but we have to be tough for the good of the whole. We have to rise above soft-hearted instincts and allow a little collateral damage to preserve the profitability of the company because, after all, what is good for the company is good for the whole country in the long haul.

It is all based on an assumption that the hourly folks are too uneducated, too short-sighted or not motivated by such high moral principles to understand and participate in the big picture. Instead, the hourly folks are more like sheep, generally the beneficiaries of management largesse but occasionally the victims of necessary herd trimming needed to preserve the flock as a whole. They were not allowed to share the purpose, rather they were the targets of the purpose and expected to have faith in management’s overall wisdom and benevolence.

The “shared purpose” Jon writes about is in total agreement with Charlie Wilson – except it includes everyone – not just management. It says, we are all in this together from CEO to janitor; and if we can get it right – make good products and take good care of customers without wasting a lot of money; if we can work as a real team combining the best we all have, then we can do a lot of good. Sure, we will all make money, but more important all of our families and lots of our suppliers’ families, and all kinds of people in our communities can live better lives because of it. We can really raise the quality of life for lots and lots of good people other than just ourselves if we can figure out how to be very, very good at what we do. The important thing is that we are all in this boat together going to what can be a very, very good place, and it will take all hands on deck, and we can’t allow anyone to fall overboard, let alone throw anyone overboard.

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