To genuinely engender Stewardship in any company requires much more than unilateral dictates or shrewd policy manipulations. It requires a fundamental shift in the relationship between a company and its members. We can best achieve this shift by being clear as to what a company is.
It may seem overly reductionist and simplistic, but a company is purely a group of people. As obvious as that might appear when you ask people what a company is (something I frequently do) you often get responses describing what a company does not what it is. As an example, one might respond “we bake bread” instead of “we are bakers”; or “we create software” instead of “we are developers”. Such declarations describe a business or the activity of a company; not the company itself.
Even here though, we haven’t dived deeply enough. It is not sufficient to know what the people within a company do but why they do it (see Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle). It’s at this point that companies need to take an honest hard look at themselves. And, in case it’s not yet clear, I mean the people in a company need to question themselves.
I’d argue that the best kind of bread comes from a bakery where the bakers are passionate about making bread. The best software comes from developers that are passionate about writing code. Too often (but certainly not always) a company is defined by people who come together “to make money”. It is particularly true of companies formed for that purpose, but it quickly becomes true of companies run for that purpose.
Even in the best of companies, founded with a passion, it is too easy to become focused on the pursuit of money and success. In particular, when companies enter public ownership, the pressure on directors to maximise profits becomes a primary driver (see for example eBay vs Newmark; also, as an aside, the definition of ‘public ownership’ is misleading when you look at who owns shares).
“Don’t aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it”.Viktor E. Frankl, “Man’s search for meaning”
Refocusing our companies on the passion, the shared ethos, the values that created the original mission, and, above all else, on the “cause greater than oneself”, does not limit our success or impact. On the contrary, that focus on why we came together in the first place is the only reliable way of achieving the success we otherwise foolishly crave.