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What Is a Great Business? What is a Responsible Business?

Think of your favorite products. They make your life deeply satisfying, meaningful, and workable. They help you be your best self and do your best work. You identify with them and tell others about them. You’re proud to be represented by them.

Customer’s Lives Are Enriched

My favorite product is my new Apple MacBook Air. I’m a blogger, author, and business content creator. I live on airplanes and carry a lot of stuff. My Mac Air makes my work really easy to do anywhere and for long periods of time. I’m a creator, not a techie. It’s nested with multiple offerings, which give me a complete system that works perfectly without requiring much tech knowledge. I feel that Apple understands my world and keeps finding ways to help me do my work better and better. I look back even ten years and can’t believe the difference in what I can deliver and the audiences I can reach. I count on Apple to keep doing that for me. That’s one aspect of what makes Apple a great business.

Co-creators Are Developed as Contributors

Enterprise, my rental car company, provides me with services that I love. Their employees act as my research and development arm. I travel a lot and I can never predict what will happen when I’m on the road. I have to reach my destinations on time and often on a tight schedule for presentations and live interviews. Recently I ended up in Austin in the mire of SXSW with very bad transportation problems. I purchased a shuttle ticket but it turned out that they didn’t pick up at my hotel. I made it to my first event, called Enterprise, and by the end of the day Enterprise brought me a car and handed me a printed set of all the directions I could possibly need to successfully navigate myself around.

The real gift came when I turned the car in. With the crazy number of people in Austin, there were no taxis to take me to the airport. After twenty minutes of trying and waiting, Bill, the Enterprise branch manager, handed a set of keys to another service agent and said, “Get this woman to her flight on time.” He made himself personally responsible for my arrival without stress. Any Enterprise agent is allowed to make such decisions—and they love that creative freedom.

A great business understands that it is core to my success, that my achievement is made possible by its people. Businesses that do amazing things for their consumers and customers are most likely great places to work. These are inseparable conditions.

People who love their work feel that what they do matters for customers and that they are deeply engaged with their customers’ successes. They focus on what they provide without becoming distracted by workplace politics or positioning themselves for promotion. Evaluation is based on the success of customers/consumers and not on the company’s numbers. Employees know who they work for—the customer, who buys, uses and tells others about company offerings. It’s not about superiors and subordinates or ratings and rankings. It’s about walking in the shoes of the customer and inventing something every day to improve or evolve the customer’s life.

A great business creates a network of co-creators, including employees, contractors, and vendors, all of whom are involved in making my life great. The businesses they buy from feel they are part of the creative process, not just a budget category to be managed. They are part of the R&D and strategy dedicated to making the customer’s life work better and have more meaning. Co-creators are also aware that their own communities benefit from their success in applying their creativity to other businesses’ customers.

Earth’s Capacity to Regenerate Is Fostered

A great example of both co-creator development and attention to life-shed regeneration is Merida Meridian, designers and manufacturers of natural fiber rugs. Merida works with suppliers around the world, and although company president Catherine Connelly is quick to point out that they fall short of their aspirations, they are wholly dedicated to their suppliers’ development.

Merida supports cooperatives in Brazil and small weaving companies across Asia, working with each to improve its design capacity and business management so that over time it can employ more community members. Merida helps these small businesses understand their effects on the living systems from which they draw their raw materials, to enable them to secure increasingly reliable sources for livelihood. The aim is to help local communities and landscapes grow their ability to determine their own futures through ongoing relationships with Merida.

Merida Meridian makes its books open to its Brazilian early-stage converters, providing them with 10 percent of the earnings in that region for their contribution to the creation of wealth. Distributors may also be engaged in specific agreements that use the owner’s asset in ways that will also benefit the distributor. This is possible because distributors are continually educated and engaged to become more able all the time.

Merida’s work is by its nature creating a healthier planet, not just doing less harm. It has engaged with local artisans immersed in the places they live and work as responsible contributors to their healthy regeneration. Customers often tell Merida how great it is not only to buy their exquisitely designed furnishings, but also to know Merida is paying attention to ecological and social questions for them.

Community Uniqueness and Democratic Processes are Fostered

A great business helps all of the places it impacts work better. This includes not only philanthropy but also ways of doing business. A good business seeks to understand its community and the story of its place. It likely even helps that story become a guiding light for community economic and business development, as well as for its own decisions affecting the community, including design and development of facilities and marketing and merchandizing of offerings. When in Rome do as the Romans becomes a metaphor for deeply connecting a business to its community and helping that community be its unique self in everything it does all the time.

David Butterfield, a sustainable developer based in British Columbia, has built many large-scale projects in North America, including Loreto Bay, Mexico and McAllen, Texas. For the last ten years he has refused to design and build with prototypical models that are neutral with regard to place. He engages with a company called ReGenesis Group. ReGenesis supports businesses, communities, and economic development organizations in efforts to discover stories of place and wrap business, development, and economies around them. The result is the transformation of disintegrating localities to coalescing communities and businesses on their way to new levels. David vouches that this commitment to the stories of the places he develops is the most financially effective decision he has ever made.

Great companies are increasingly aware of their effects on democracy. Work arrangements are a powerful context in shaping human agency, and how a business organizes work can have profound effects on the capabilities of customers, consumers, co-creators, and communities. Businesses can increase or diminish peoples’ sense that they are able to make significant contributions to the world. Great businesses understand that these kinds of effects also empower their own systemic innovation and contributions.

Investors Earn Enduring Ethical Returns

Great businesses provide investors with enduring ethical returns at the same time they strengthen respect for their industries and for capitalism as a workable economic framework. Without people who are willing to risk some of their own capital, companies cannot reach for and achieve their dreams. When businesses educate financial investors about the ways and effects of pursuing dreams, they build better investors. Most companies don’t educate, they only report.

The application of living-systems thinking to the working of money is very poorly understood even by wealthy investors. Investors, along with the rest of the world, think about effectiveness and success within a very limited scope. I believe the “scope problem” is more a question of a missing capability than a moral deficiency. We have not yet developed the capability of educators to perceive whole systems at work and understand their dynamic interdependence. As a consequence very few individuals leave school with that capability.

When we treat this shortfall as a challenge and understand that anyone can develop living-systems capability, at any time of life, we change the relationship between a business and all of its stakeholders. Two good places to start, because they are shared concerns, are the work of “value and wealth creation” and the role that healthy industries and faith in the capitalist economic model play in doing that work.

Chad Holliday took on the first of these two, a healthy industry, when he was chairman, CEO, and president of DuPont. Chad refused to be immobilized with regard to his commitment to doing what seemed right. He realized that one of his greatest opportunities to make a significant change in the world was shifting shareholder understanding. He felt that, in general, shareholders were disconnected from the impact of corporate decisions, and he made shareholder education central to his strategy. He knew that butting heads with his board was not going to shift their understanding or perspective. It would only reduce dialogue and increase resistance. So instead he launched a campaign to educate not only his own shareholders, but also the investment world as a whole.

Chad knew that what was driving his shareholders was not limited to his own company but part of a much larger set of assumptions about corporate governance. Part of his strategy was to use his influence as the head of a Fortune 100 company to evolve those assumptions. For example, he helped design the UN Global Compact and took a position on its board. The Global Compact, a voluntary initiative for multi-national corporations, focused on learning, dialogue and partnerships. As part of that effort he helped develop the “Global Governance Framework” and “Ten Principles,” which articulate agreements that guide global corporations’ efforts to hold themselves accountable.

At the same time that Chad was working to transform the field of corporate governance, which is the means by which companies interact with their shareholders, he was also working to transform DuPont. He believed that transparency was a meaningful and effective way to bring about change and to educate everyone a company touches, all of its stakeholders. Toward this end, he chartered a set of advisory boards for a number of DuPont businesses. In the case of the biotech business, he recruited a broad range of members for the advisory board, including a priest, the leader of an environmental NGO from Mexico, and a diverse group of scientists, ethicists, and medical experts. In particular he sought out activists who would challenge, and educate, the company and board. He strongly encouraged them to make their case. Chad pointed out, “They can make you very uncomfortable at board meetings, and that is what we wanted. It makes the company and business better.”

This seems to me to be what great businesses do. They take good care of their customers’ lives by bringing their co-creators to increasingly higher levels of capability and opportunity to contribute to them. They do all their work in a way that values their primary investor, Earth, ensuring that its capacity for regeneration is enabled at a rate greater than its depletion. This level of responsibility for Earth results when all co-creators acting on behalf of a business deeply understand and work with each unique life-shed as an organ of the body of the whole. As they do business, they foster each of their communities and regions in the context of their own stories. They make democracy, capitalism, and understanding of the living-systems nature of investment a focus of their relationships with communities.

When businesses conduct work systemically and in this order, the whole of life evolves and becomes healthier. In contrast, staring with the investor and omitting investor education and development spins a business backwards and downward. Great businesses are grounded in the commitment with which they are formed—to make lives better and be paid for doing so and to keep doing it.

That is how it works when you have a very successful business. It turns out that responsibility is endemic to great, successful businesses. The Responsible Business is the path to success.

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