Re-Thinking Capitalism: Best-Selling Author Espouses Higher Calling for Boards

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“Society needs financial wealth … but it matters how you make the money,” said Rajendra Sisodia, co-founder and co-chair of Conscious Capitalism Inc., and director of the Container Store Group. “Businesses not only create, they can destroy financial wealth, as well.”

Raj Sisodia NACD Summit

Sisodia, a marketing professor at Babson University whose published books include Conscious Capitalism and Firms of Endearment, delivered a keynote address on capitalism’s transformative power Tuesday at NACD’s Global Board Leaders’ Summit. The four-day summit convened more than 1,300 attendees—the world’s largest gathering of corporate directors—in Washington, D.C. from Sept. 17-20.

Roots of Capitalism

One of the most significant conclusions of Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith’s seminal 1776 book, An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (often referred to as The Wealth of Nations), was that places rooted in freedom tend to be more prosperous. Smith’s work became a foundational text on how capitalist markets work.

“That same year—an extraordinary historic coincident in some ways—the United States was born as a country, but more importantly, an idea. [It was] the only country born out of a set of ideas,” Sisodia said. “The ideas all revolved around liberty and freedom.” Entire segments of the American population, however, were not initially given access to that freedom—including African-Americans, native populations, and women—but the nation has extended freedoms steadily over the course of its nearly 250-year history.

“What is capitalism? Political and economic freedom,” Sisodia proclaimed. It’s rooted in the idea that free markets—or economic growth driven by individuals, rather than a centrally planned economy directed by the government or a political system—help people collectively elevate their material living conditions and boost prosperity, he said.

Poverty and Capitalism

A misperception about capitalism, Sisodia said, is that it exploits people of lower income brackets, locking them into poverty. Research, though, suggests that as capitalist markets have expanded, poverty rates have declined.

Data from the World Bank show that rates of extreme poverty have decreased considerably over the past three decades. More than half of people in the developing world lived on less than $1.25 per day in 1981, compared with 21 percent living on that amount per day in 2010.

Sisodia credited that decrease to prosperity derived from capitalism, saying that the key challenge for lifting the rest of the world out of poverty is not the unequal distribution of income, but the unequal distribution of freedom.

How the World Is Changing

“What will it take for companies to flourish in the future—and not just flourish for the purpose of making a lot of money, but actually be agents of flourishing in society?” Sisodia asked. The simple answer, he continued, is that you must be in harmony with the fact that people have changed over time to become, among other things, more:

  • There are now more mobile devices on Earth than there are people. The internet and use of social media have further connected the world. Facebook now claims 1.6 billion users.
  • The rate of serious violent crimes in U.S. public schools has dropped significantly to about one-third of what it was in 1994. Europe, Sisodia said, had experienced 1,200 wars in 600 years, but since 1945, inter-state wars on the continent have disappeared.
  • Sisodia described the so-called Flynn Effect, which suggests that there has been a consistent increase in IQ scores from 1930 to the present.
  • Embracing of “feminine” values. “I think the great story of this century is … the end of the suppression of the feminine [side of humanity],” Sisodia said. Women now earn more college degrees than men in the United States, and as a result, the expectation is that women will rise in positions of leadership—particularly in white-collar work settings. That will naturally mean that so-called feminine values, which he described as including cooperation, empathy, and compassion, will gain more traction in society.

Tenets of Conscious Capitalism

Accepting that the world is changing, Sisodia advised that businesses embrace the four tenets of conscious capitalism. That means to act with:

  • A higher purpose, or more specifically, a purpose beyond generating profits. Sisodia’s website provides a further explanation by quoting University of Virginia Darden School of Business professor and Conscious Capitalism, Inc. trustee, Ed Freeman: “We need red blood cells to live (the same way a business needs profits to live), but the purpose of life is more than to make red blood cells (the same way the purpose of business is more than simply to generate profits).”
  • A stakeholder orientation. Conscious businesses exist not only to maximize ROI for shareholders, but also seek to enhance value for all stakeholders, leading to a more resilient business.
  • Conscious leadership that demonstrates care for purpose and people; and
  • Conscious culture built on trust, care, and transparency—not rooted in fear and stress (the risk of having a heart attack is 20% higher on Mondays for men, 15% for women, and most research blames the stress of returning to work for these statistics).

Boards: Stewards of Well-Being

Sisodia offered several considerations aimed at helping boards—and companies—become more conscious overseers:

  • The primary duty of the board is to the corporation—which has its own significant role in society—rather than shareholders.
  • Understand and shape the company’s higher purpose. Ask your board to reflect on why the company would be missed if it were to disappear tomorrow.
  • Consciously seek to create value for all stakeholders.
  • Appoint strong leaders with a capacity for love and care. It is not healthy to appoint leaders who are analytically smart but lack empathy and other forms of emotional intelligence.
  • Build a culture of “full-spectrum” consciousness, meaning that you are not only concerned with service to people and a higher purpose, but also efficiency, effectiveness, and success.
  • Ensure youth and feminine perspectives are heeded when making business decisions.

Humanity is more aware of its challenges and problems than ever before, Sisodia said in closing, and the individual and collective capacity to respond to those challenges has never been higher. “We have to create the organizational forms and philosophies and build business on [the ideals of] purpose and caring. … [A]ll of those answers that we need to our crises are out there inside somebody. We just have to figure out how to liberate that.”

What the Changing Geopolitical Landscape Means for Your Company

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Ian Bremmer, founder and president of Eurasia Group, is often described as a guru of political risk—a type of risk that’s becoming more important for companies to consider. In his keynote address at the 2016 NACD Global Board Leaders’ Summit, he advised that, although companies have traditionally focused on financial returns, they will need to be primarily concerned about the security of their investments going forward—and investments stand to be radically impacted by geopolitical disruption. Bremmer noted that the impact of significant global changes is much greater than the outcome of the upcoming U.S. elections.

Ian Bremmer at NACD Summit

He also pointed out two global developments that companies need to keep top of mind:

1. The increased fragmentation of geopolitical power: Over the past half century, American businesses conflated Americanization with globalization. That line of thinking is failing to hold up, and Americanization of global markets has halted. The United States can no longer set and control the rules of global diplomacy and market place and will be increasingly reluctant to police global tensions. The United States’ transatlantic partnerships are weakening, and the European common market is under threat. These conditions have created an economic power vacuum that China is primed to step up and lead.

A champion of state-owned enterprise and the yuan, China has economic interests that are not aligned with those of the United States. This creates problems for U.S. businesses seeking to conduct business abroad. “Political hedging leads to economic hedging,” Bremmer said. “Corporations that are seen as being aligned with one country will be challenged to commercially succeed in others.” Uber’s failure in China is just one example.

2. The erosion of key social contracts: In recent years, there have been breakdowns in the implicit social contracts between governments and citizens and between companies and consumers. Rising populist anger is challenging the legitimacy of governments and threatening longstanding commitments to free trade. On the economic front, developed countries are spurring economic growth through innovative applications of technology—but these advancements are displacing millions of workers. As a result, Bremmer foresees a rise in nationalistic parties that will challenge the status quo and threaten international commerce, following similar strategies as the Brexit movement the U.K.

But where governments fail to adapt, other parties can step in to make amends—and companies are well positioned to be part of the solution. Bremmer offered the example of AT&T, which faced the possibility of needing to lay off a portion of its workforce because their work no longer supported the company’s future growth. But AT&T also knew that because of the transformations in the telecommunications industry in recent years, these workers would be hard pressed to find employment at another firm. Instead, the company decided to retrain these workers so they could support AT&T’s future trajectory. “If a corporation is the first to say it understands the social contract is breaking down and offers a solution, it will serve them well,” Bremmer said.

Economics, Uncertainty, and the 2016 Election

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At a mainstage panel during NACD’s 2016 Global Board Leaders’ Summit on September 19, directors, economists, and former regulators discussed the potential regulatory, economic, and geopolitical implications of the coming election and reflected on how corporate directors and executive teams should adjust to greater levels of ambiguity. One of the panelists, Nicholas M. (Nick) Donofrio, director of Advanced Micro Devices Inc., BNY Mellon Corp., Delphi Automotive PLC, Liberty Mutual Co., the MITRE Corp., and NACD, and the former head of innovation at IBM, characterized today’s external environment as “lumpier and more abrupt than even a few years ago,” forcing companies and their boards to be always on alert and to act quickly in response to change.

NACD Summit Election Panel

The panelists offered a range of projections to help corporate directors assess the business impact of the upcoming elections. They emphasized that aside from a new occupant of the White House, the elections also have the potential to drive significant changes in Congress, major regulatory agencies, and the judicial system. The discussion centered on four major questions of importance for companies and the boards that oversee them.

  1. How likely is a major reform of the tax code?

Reform of the corporate tax code is long overdue, said former U.S. Senator Olympia J. Snowe, director of Aetna, Inc. and the Bipartisan Policy Center. For years, companies have learned to accept the “permanent temporary tax code,” and the resulting policy uncertainty has made investment and capital allocation decisions more challenging. Snowe suggested that even if House and/or Senate control switches from one party to another, it is unlikely that Democratic and Republican congressional leaders will be able to transcend their fundamental differences about taxation and break the current gridlock. Most likely, she believes, the incoming president will use the power of the pen to tweak the current tax code through executive orders.

  1. Should we expect continued regulatory activism?

Troy A. Paredes, director of Electronifie and former Commissioner of the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC), shared his concern that “the tidal wave of regulations” seen in the past few years won’t slow down, and it will force companies to commit more time and resources to compliance. “Elections are always major inflection points,” he said, that either sustain or reset the policy priorities of the SEC and other key regulatory bodies such as the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Federal Trade Commission, and Federal Communications Commission. Meanwhile, Paredes urged directors to be alert as to whether Mary Jo White, the current chair of the SEC, will have enough time in her remaining tenure to finish rule-making on key corporate governance matters covered in Dodd-Frank.

  1. Will our political system address skill shortages in the labor market?

Nick Donofrio offered a mixed view of how the country is addressing the looming crisis in the labor market where current skill sets do not align with the future industry needs. “Our political institutions are too polarized to take meaningful action,” he said. However, it’s crucial that the United States build a digitally competent and productive labor force that can be employed to deliver high-tech manufacturing. “We cannot afford to only create [financial] value in this country, but we must also [manufacture] value here. That means returning much more research and development and production to American soil.” In the absence of government investment, he’s optimistic that the private sector will step up to address this critical challenge and find innovative ways to reskill displaced workers.

  1. How will the United States make itself more competitive globally?

Harry Broadman, a seasoned economist and the CEO and managing partner of Proa Global Partners LLC, reminded the audience that the United States faced a similar set of challenges to its global competitiveness in the 1980s when Japan was projected to become the world’s economic leader. A major difference today may be the backlash against free trade, which could jeopardize the adoption of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and threaten the underpinnings of the European Union. Broadman underlined that it will be critical for U.S. policymakers to remove barriers to foreign investments from high-growth emerging market companies that will contribute to quality job growth. This new generation of enterprises is important to the future of global business, which will no longer be dominated by firms headquartered in the West.

He and other panelists also spoke extensively about the importance of major investments in public infrastructure. America’s crumbling highways, bridges, ports, and technology infrastructure significantly impede further productivity growth, which Broadman believes is the country’s major Achilles’ heel.