Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Businessman or conman?

Is the only difference the absence of ethics?

I thought I had heard it all, until this comment confronted me on the TV programme Carte Blanche recently.

“The traits to be a really successful business person are in fact almost identical to what you need to be a really successful conman. There’s just one issue … you have to remove ethics.” Cynthia Schoeman: MD: Ethics Monitor.

No matter how many hypotheses and how much context Ms Schoeman puts to that statement, it is a very sad reflection of the general state of trust in business.

There is a mushrooming industry that is finding lucrative incomes in advising companies on how they should behave, prescribing “codes of ethics”; monitoring committees; training programmes; and highly lucrative “bosberade”.

On the other hand, we should not be surprised. The near fanatical defence of the exclusive profit motive in business in the last four or so decades, bringing with it short-term profit maximisation; obsessive focus on shareholder-value; indefensible executive rewards and at times disgraceful behaviour that severely tainted business reputation since the turn of the century, has left many with a similar view…a view that has gone way beyond Bill Kellogg’s description of the profit motive as “dreary and demeaning”, to comparisons with the attributes of a conman.

All one needs, it seems, is a clearly defined code of ethics, prescribed and shaped by an expensive outsider – rules of the game that eventually have to be enforced through a big brother government. More rules. More regulations. More Mervyn Kings.

Ethics are what you wear. Values are what you are. I can prescribe a suitable dress code. I cannot prescribe your desire to be clothed. I can prescribe what utensils you must use at table. I cannot prescribe what and how much you must eat. These definitions may differ from those of the conventional behavioural scientist, but it clarifies a very important distinction between how you behave and why you behave. It speaks to the important issue of intent, and to remotely suggest that the intent of the conman is the same as the intent of the businessman, entrepreneur or company, is quite astounding.

This is where the most dangerous assault on free enterprise and free markets comes from – not the financial shenanigans that left the global economy in crisis, although they were arguably sourced by similar motives – but from a general assumption that the primary intent of any business activity is to maximise self-gain; and that the only difference between that activity and a “con” is in the clothes that are worn.

This is much more than a “dreary and demeaning” description of any business. It is an affront to many an entrepreneurial giant that has made a tangible difference to our lives. I have met many over the past number of decades. I have studied as many others. While they have amassed huge fortune, I am fully persuaded that that is not what drove them.

What drove them and what ensured their success was passion and love for what they could do – a desire to make a difference, and thereby fulfil a fundamental principle that unleashed their true value – their capacity to make a contribution to others. They saw profit as a means to an end, not an end in itself. Indeed, many, after achieving great personal wealth, simply gave most of it away.

They should not be confused with over-paid professional predatory managers who mostly ride on the backs of their founding entrepreneurs under the false guise of being able to replicate their achievements and have largely contributed to the trust problem.

Of course success breeds envy and attracts suspicion. The envious and suspicious assume that they are privy to the real motives behind those acts; that those who profess to be driven by something else than maximum self-gain are simply lying. The fact remains that not only did they promise to do; they actually did!

This is the essence of business. It is the fundamental principle behind supply – that it has to meet the needs and wants of others before it can even remotely think of self-gain. That it owes its very existence to being of service to others. The fulfilment of that condition is ultimately not interested in motive. At the same time it is obvious that aligning motive with that condition, where rewards are not seen as an end in themselves but as an indispensable affirmation of contribution, then that success is not only more likely to be assured, but also sustained and expanded.

It is that intent that will shape behaviour, not an imposition of a code. The “why” always shapes the “how”. Attention always follows intention.

Those focussed only on what they can get restrict their capacity to add value because of their limited knowledge, fears and insecurities. They restrict their ability to identify clearly the needs of others, thereby often missing opportunities. The opposite is true for those constantly exploring the needs and wants of others and caring enough to make a difference.

It is indeed unfortunate that the benevolent underpinning of the relationship between supply and demand has been redefined, both in understanding and often in practice; that the sole purpose of economic collaboration is seen as maximum gain for one constituent, often at the expense of others; that behaviour in the last few decades has led to severe imbalances and disparities, and that the motives of business and conmen have become synonymous.

That will surely invite the wrath of society and ominously so through government.

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