The Battle to Strike a Moral Balance

Not so long ago, when I wrote of truth in business, reader reaction was immense. Today, let me take that discussion a step further

By Christopher Kenton

For the first time since I started writing this column a year ago, I got a lot of positive e-mail in response to something I wrote. What a concept. I'm used to getting bashed for everything from being ignorant to being a shill for Big Business. But this time, after writing about the imbalance of business values and human values, I struck a chord with a group of readers far more reflective than usual (see BW Online, 1/30/04, "The Truth, No Matter What").

I thought I'd be ready to deal with reader reactions to my series, "When Sales Meets Marketing, parts 1, 22, and 3, but after reading those e-mails in response to my earlier column, I think there's more to be said on the topic of how we balance competing values.

FIRST THINGS.

  Let me start by framing the issue as a balancing act between values that usually compete: Business values are built around aggressive competition, winning, and wealth, while human values revolve around honoring and contributing to your family and community. In a business paradigm, we respect someone who crushes the competition and rises to the sole position of power. In a community paradigm, we respect someone who plays a role of service and leadership.

This is not a difference between "liberal" and "conservative" values, as is often suggested. There are plenty of wealthy and business-savvy liberals, and plenty of community-oriented conservatives. Indeed, I know many people like myself who identify with neither the liberal or conservative label, but still struggle with balancing work with personal values.

Similarly, this is not a problem that government or business needs -- or even is able -- to solve. This is a community problem, an aggregation of individual responsibilities to remember what's important in life, and to act according to what we believe instead of our compulsive desires.

FANTASY VS. FACT.

  It isn't the fault of capitalism, or our government, that we find it so hard to keep our lives in balance. Capitalism is not good or evil. Our government is not good or evil. They are both amoral. But they magnify the behaviors our society celebrates and reflect those behaviors back to us. The irony of public outrage over corporate scandals like Enron, even while our society celebrates every conceivable material excess and shortcut to wealth, is pathetic. It's almost as pathetic as the hand-wringing that followed Janet Jackson's exposure on TV, while commercials fill our daily lives with violent and erotic titillation.

It's all of our responsibility to hold capitalism in check by enforcing our values, not with laws and regulations, but through the decisions we make about what we buy, where we shop, and how we live. Voting with our dollars shapes our economic and political system far more than legislation ever could. The question is whether we're ever able to disconnect our buying habits from the commercial fantasy paraded before us and connect them with the real world we so frequently lament?

As businesspeople and entrepreneurs, the responsibility goes deeper, with the decisions we make about how we compete, how we serve our customers, and how we treat our colleagues, our staffs, our partners, our community. The question here is whether we're ever able to connect our notions of success with the health of the community in which we operate.

PRICE OF HAPPINESS.

  One of my first mentors was a wealthy broker who managed investment accounts for multimillionaires. There were two pieces of common sense he was able to make real for me. The first was to invest for the long run, instead of active trading. He showed me the numbers to prove it. The second was not to expect money to bring happiness. He showed me a portfolio full of rich clients paranoid of losing what they treasured most.

The point was not to give up working hard to achieve success, but to put success in the context of a real human life. Except for some microscopic fraction of the population, material success doesn't come overnight, and it certainly doesn't replace the personal success of playing a valued role in a family, a business and a community. I value success in business, and I pursue it aggressively. But it's a game in the context of my life in a community -- not the other way around. When I'm playing the game, I never forget that my teammates and opponents are part of a community I value.

I used to think it was a lost cause to hope, as a society, we would eventually "get it." But now I'm beginning to believe we may be on our way, and I see increasing signs that make me optimistic. Citibank, one of the largest international lenders in the world, just created a groundbreaking lending policy to stop funding operations that undermine the environment. That's a business decision with profound social implications, supported by a profit motive.

MORE THAN MONEY.

  What seems harder to change is the attitudes and motivations in my own line of business, marketing, which bears a heavy responsibility for filling our brains from childhood with unattainable desires. It is accepted as a fundamental tenet of business that this is necessary for marketing to be effective, for businesses to succeed, and for the economy to churn onward, and there are certainly statistics to support that notion from a bottom-line perspective.

But what most people misunderstand about marketing is that it's not just about winning customers in the here and now. That mentality rewards behavior that focuses on short-term interests at the expense of sustainable value. The role of marketing is to increase the value of a business by increasing the lifetime value of each and every customer.

Marketing is about building relationships with customers -- building a community -- based on creating products that fulfill customers' needs. In most cases, the most efficient way to build business value is to focus on building relationships that can be sustained over more than one product lifecycle -- an approach that requires some sense of community values. The typical marketing approach of slashing and burning through prospects to meet short-term sales numbers is dramatically less efficient, and reflects a purely business mindset that views customers as dollar signs.

FINDING A BALANCE.

  Balancing values in business is a nice reflection of the challenge we face in balancing our work and personal lives, and it's one of the main reasons I work in marketing. Marketing is an extraordinarily powerful tool, one with the power to build sustainable value in businesses that understand the balancing effect of community values. But outside of retail, marketing hasn't even begun to approach its real potential. Most businesses have no idea what marketing can do for their business, and they let it flounder as the harmless domain for "creative types." But that's changing.

Enough companies understand the power of marketing that the landscape of business will inevitably change with Darwinian efficiency. There are new tools and new techniques on the horizon that have fascinating potential. But the impact of those tools, just like capitalism, depends on what we make of it. I spend a lot of time discovering and building those tools, so I can work with companies in a way that I believe will change the business landscape for the better. Maybe I'm just tilting at windmills, but it's one of the ways I try to keep things in balance.

Christopher Kenton is president of the marketing agency Cymbic. He can be reached at ckenton@cymbic.com

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