“It’s nothing personal. It’s just business.”
How many times have you heard that line in movies, TV shows, books? It’s pretty much the expectation of how businesses will behave: putting profits first and people last. Anytime you see a corporate executive portrayed on a screen, and they’re given the choice between doing the right thing and doing the profitable thing, they pick profits first. Pretty much every time. I’m not blowing anyone’s mind here – this is table stakes for screenwriting.
The thing is, this entire mentality, this assumption, is wrong. Dead wrong.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not some idealist who believes no one acts in their own self interest and, I’ll freely admit, many businesses do put profits first, all the time. I’m not talking about the bad actors that every industry and business has. No, I’m talking about most corporations.
How do all these corporations make all this money if they don’t put profit first? Well, I’m going to show you, by sharing an example of an industry that meets the very definition of sustainable – farming. Specifically, I’m going to share my farm’s story, and how putting profits first would doom us.
My farm got its start in 1956. My grandparents moved to our current home yard and set up a grain and livestock operation, raising cereal crops, cattle, pigs, chickens; you name it, they grew it. In the late 1970’s, my dad took over, and we are now well into the transition to generation three. Today, we grow a variety of different crops, including wheat, durum, canola, lentils, peas, and flax, (livestock are long gone), and we are farming 22 times more acres than my grandparents did. We didn’t get here by bullying our way up, swallowing up neighbours and creating enemies. We did it through relationships.
The reason this farm exists is because of the partnerships we created, with our lenders, crop input suppliers, grain buyers, landowners, equipment salespeople and mechanics, and, perhaps most importantly, our family and employees. Focusing on building strong relationships is what gets you through your hardest times, your darkest hours. It’s when it won’t stop raining, you get stuck out in the middle of nowhere and the sky is darkening again, and your last tow strap breaks, that you need your neighbour the most. It’s when grain prices are relentlessly poor, your cash flow runs out, and you just need your banker to give you one more chance to get a good crop off. It’s in these moments that the partnerships you’ve built carry you through to the other side.
How do you build partnerships? Through win-wins and being someone people like to work with.
If every time I talk to my crop input supplier I complain about her prices and how much money she makes, how likely is she going to be to stick up for me when a product fails? How happy is she going to be when I walk in her door? These relationships go both ways, and if all you do is focus on “winning” every transaction, you can guarantee one thing: someday, you’ll lose.
Farmers are the quintessential sustainable businesses because of their inherent multi-generational legacies. Starting a farm from scratch may not be impossible, but it is tremendously difficult. The capital required is absolutely mind-boggling. To survive as these multi-generational businesses, we cannot put profit first. We must put people first. That means thinking long-term – beyond the next five years, or even ten. We must think bigger than that if we are going to survive to the next generation.
Money is useful, don’t get me wrong. We can’t do a thing without it. If we aren’t profitable, none of this matters, because we won’t exist. Profit is an essential part of our business.
I heard motivational and business speaker Simon Sinek put it this way: profit is like gas in your car. You need it to get to where you want to go. But is the point of driving to find more and more gas? No! You are on a journey somewhere, and it’s gas that gets you there. But it’s not why you exist.
Maybe that example is a bit simplistic, but I think the point is there. This farm doesn’t exist to make money. It exists to achieve our family’s goals, which are far, far bigger than dollars and cents.
Are we unique in this? Are we just a special business, that puts money behind family and community? The answer to that is an unequivocal no. We aren’t special. We aren’t unique. I know of a hundred Western Canadian farmers who are just like us. And there are thousands more I don’t know that are probably wired the same way too.
Other businesses have a similar modus operandi. Corporations are made up of people, individuals. Individuals who want to achieve goals. Individuals who want to make the world a better place. By and large, those are the people driving the future of the corporations you see, the ones so villainously portrayed in media. The people working there are just like everyone else. Businesses that are run this way, thinking long-term, putting people first, and being good corporate citizens, tend to be more profitable. Businesses that focus solely on profit tend to flame out over time. Any of Jim Collins’s books have plenty of data to highlight this.
It’s also worth mentioning that this world that we hold so dear, that has delivered so much wealth and success to billions of people, exists as we know it thanks to profits. Entrepreneurs develop new ideas with a dream; a dream of making people’s lives better, but also of providing a better future for their families. The incentive to produce a successful product is clear. Without that incentive, why develop new ideas at all? We’ve seen the failure of communist empires precisely for this reason. You can’t take away the incentive to generate profit. If you do, our entire system will fail.
Next time you watch a show that casts the corporation as the villain, think a little deeper. Corporations aren’t villains – only the people running them can be. And most of them aren’t. If that is their driving goal for existence, I’d be willing to bet they won’t last long.