The “Noble Experiment” - Can Business Be a Force for Good

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Values Matter...

I recently watched a YouTube video about Jackie Robinson and his experience breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball. He did it with a great deal of courage, and with patience for the extremely narrow-mindedness and intolerance of people venting their hatred at him.

Baseball is a sport of extreme mental concentration and focus. Players are easily thrown off their game by even minor distractions. Yet Jackie, in spite of all the off the field (and sometimes on the field) abuse he suffered, was able to play top-notch baseball. He did it with an intensity and aggressiveness that eventually gained him the grudging respect of a nation that, in those days, still harbored deep prejudices. Many hated him for his skin color, but came to respect his skills and the way he conducted his life and played the game of baseball. Eventually, Jackie was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. To this day, he is the only player to have his number retired by all of baseball. One day each year all major league players wear number 42 in his honor.

Watching the YouTube video again reminded me of my admiration for Jackie, but this time my attention was drawn to two key players in the Jackie Robinson story. Branch Rickey was the President and General manager of the Dodgers, and the team owner was Bill Veeck. It was they who decided that something needed to be done to break the color barrier in baseball. They knew it would be futile to try to convince people to change their prejudices, or attempt to legislate change through the baseball commissioners office, so they made a courageous decision.

They just did it. They put a black man on their baseball team.

They didn’t do any market testing. They didn’t mount a publicity campaign to try to convince fans that “colored” people could and should play baseball at the highest level. They didn’t wait until it was an acceptable, normal practice. They put a black man on their team knowing full well that it would create a shock wave in the world of baseball, and that the man they selected would be subjected to extreme insult and abuse.

Why did these two businessmen, already successful and respected, want to disrupt the status quo of the baseball world? Why did they take on such a huge risk that would potentially threaten their already successful business?

They had the conventional goals of baseball team owners -- to own a successful, profitable business, and to prove themselves to be the best baseball club in the world by winning the World Series. But they shared another goal. Really more than a goal -- a sense of mission. They wanted, somehow, to make the world a better place. I don’t know that they ever thought of it as a mission or made any kind of “mission statement.” But that’s what it was. A mission.
It’s commonly understood in the business world that a business is all about making money and that’s it. Standard business wisdom is that businesses should be focused on the bottom line. Maximize profits. Grow the business. Increase value for the shareholders. When management loses its focus on the bottom line, stakeholders become angry, and industry/business experts criticise the business and its leadership.

Is that right? Is that all there is?

Let’s ask a few questions about this basic belief and see if we can find a deeper truth about the world of business.

1. Who are the stakeholders of a business?

It’s common to take a narrow view of stakeholders, defining them as those who have a direct financial interest in the business, such as owners, suppliers, lenders, and, of course, customers. But this narrow definition really limits our thinking about those who want to see the business succeed.

What about employees? Their income depends directly on the business. The majority of their day to day energy is spent in the business, Much of their fulfillment in life comes from the successes they experience in the business, as do many of their disappointments.

In the case of Bill Veeck’s and Branch Rickey’s “noble experiment” with Jackie Robinson, their employees -- baseball players, teammates -- were striving for the glory of November baseball, trying to win it all in the World series. Jackie Robinson increased that possibility dramatically. He led the Dodgers to six World Series.

What about the community? There is a symbiotic relationship between a business and its community. The community is much more than simply a customer base for the business. In many ways businesses are the face of the community for people local and afar. Ask any economic developer and he will tell you that the growth, stability and wealth of a community is directly tied to the businesses in that community.

In the case of the Brooklyn Dodgers, they were part of the face of that community. So much so that civic pride was tied up in their success. The community, not just the diehard fans, wanted to see them win.

2. What do stakeholders want?

I was recently at a conference for entrepreneurs, listening to a panel talking about sustainable business practices. One of the panelists interrupted the flow of thought by stating that when we are talking about sustainable businesses we must never forget that sustainable means profitable. Without profit there is no way that a business can sustain itself no matter what other practices they put in place. Profit isn’t the only motive, but if you lose sight of it the business won’t survive. So, it’s basic that all stakeholders want the business to be profitable. But do they want more than that?

Of course they do. And entrepreneurs need to know what their stakeholders want.

For entrepreneurs, their businesses are extensions of themselves...their baby... their way of making a mark on the world. Much of the impact they have on the world is made either directly or indirectly through their businesses.

As an entrepreneur what do you want? What kind of a mark do you want to leave on the world once you’re gone? How do you want to make the world a better place? Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck had a sense of mission. What is yours? Is the business getting you any closer to that goal? If not, are you in the right business? Are you operating in a way that will take you there, rather than the way conventional wisdom tells you to operate? You’re in the driver’s seat, but if you’re not taking your stakeholders into account, you may be driving on the wrong road.

What do your employees want? You might think they want better salaries, but look a little deeper, ask some deeper questions. They may not be able to articulate exactly what they want because they have probably never been asked this kind of question before, But ask anyway, and look for little clues that they give in the conversation. See how their wants and needs might match up with yours.

What about the community? This one can be a little confusing. Henry Ford once said that if he had asked the market what it wanted, it would have said “a faster horse.” Steve Jobs said that sometimes you just need to show the market what you have come up with and see the reaction. Sometimes the market might not be ready for what you are creating, and you may have to go back and reevaluate.

Pay attention to your stakeholders. Know them. And satisfy them -- make them happy. Your business will be more profitable, more satisfying, and it will create a better impact in the world if you do.

3. What does your business stand for?

Values matter. What you stand for matters. The way you conduct business and the way you treat people matters to customers, employees, owners, and the community in which you do business. Whether or not you have taken the time to think about it, values -- what you stand for -- matter, and they matter a lot.

You’ll find that your business stands for something, whether you plan it that way or not. So make it stand for something good. Something positive. Something satisfying.

How do you do that? Here are a few ideas.

In many ways your employees are your business. The question is, why do people want to work for your business? Pay? Of course, but there’s much more. Employees (surprise!) are people, and people are complex. Yes, they’ll trade time for money, but they need more than that. They need something to move them, something to talk about, something to get them excited about coming to work. Something to make them thank God it’s Monday so they can go back to doing what means something to them. I’m not saying they need to love every minute and every task. We all need to buckle down sometimes and do the hard things, but as Proverbs says “without vision, the people perish.” How can you inspire them and give them a worthwhile sense of mission?

You do it by sharing your own sense of mission. What do you stand for? What does your business stand for? Let your employees know. And if you haven’t figured it out for yourself, figure it out. Then share it with them. Most importantly, make sure that you and your business “talk the talk and walk the walk.” Words mean nothing without action. So make “right action” your motto. Do what’s right, what contributes to your sense of mission. And insist that your people do the same. They’ll love you for it, and your business will soar.

What about the community? Why should they buy from you rather than any of the other options available to them? And believe me, they have options. If you think that some combination of better, faster, cheaper is really going to attract long-term customers, think again. Yes, you will get business that way, but trust me when I say that someone will come along with a slightly better combination of better, faster, cheaper. If all you have to say to your market is that we are better, faster, and cheaper, then you’re simply joining the rat race. It’s time to rethink your approach to business.

Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck had a good baseball team, but they needed to make it better. The best way they could see doing that was to try something unconventional. They plucked a player from a pool that none of the other teams had tapped. They put someone on the field who didn’t look like everyone else. They had already decided that the color barrier was something that needed to be torn down and that doing so would make their community and their team a better place. They embarked on what they considered to be a noble experiment. Yes, it worked but they had no assurance in the beginning that it wouldn’t end in disaster. It was a calculated risk, a daring experiment. If Jackie hadn’t been good enough, the fan base would have rejected him and the team. But they were convinced that for the good of the team, for the good of the community they had to try. It was the right thing to do. Veeck and Rickey shared their sense of mission by walking the walk, by doing it. It took a while, but their team, and later their fans saw the light and wholeheartedly joined their sense of mission. They stood for equality and excellence, and the community joined them.

Values matter. What you stand for matters.

Recently business owners have been testing out different things

A little while ago I read about a tech company that took the drastic step of paying every single employee the same salary. This was not without problems. It created a lot of resentment from many of the longstanding employees. What Branch Rickey, and Ben and Jerry, and the tech company did weren’t without significant risks. So you have to be convinced that what you’re doing is the right thing to do.

A client of mine used to remind me of something he learned from the Davy Crockett show back in the 50s when he was a kid. “Make sure you’re right, then go ahead.” Being right doesn’t always mean you will be successful but it can still be right.

Another client of mine owned a very diner serving the typical American breakfast and lunch menu items, but he was dissatisfied. His restaurant stood for the wrong things. Its values didn’t reflect his own values. He knew that what he was selling, while tasty and popular, wasn’t really in the best interest of his customers, so he rebranded, reorganized the menu, retrained his staff and reinvented his restaurant. Instead of heating up frozen, prepackaged meals, his restaurant now serves almost everything made fresh, from scratch, on location, with no food colors or chemical additives. He made Gluten free and allergen free foods a priority. As he said, “what we eat matters.” He thought that there might be a market for this type of diner, but he wasn’t sure. He made the transformation based on the conviction that it was the best thing for his customers and the community. It would have been easy and safe to just continue selling what he was selling. But it wasn’t right for him. He wanted his business to stand for something better because he stood for something better.

You have a business. Your business gives you a place of influence in your corner of the world. What is it that you believe that most people around you either don’t believe or don’t have the courage to do? 

What do you stand for? 

Your business can be the instrument for making it real in your corner of the world. Walk the walk. Walk your walk


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