When I was a university student and living in student housing, I had a poster that read ‘Resist doing things that have no meaning in life’.
Little did I know how much that singular sentiment would resonate with me and guide me throughout my life and career.
I’ve found that, whenever I am contributing to something greater than myself, I am loaded with an endless supply of energy. And it is because of this that finding ways to improve ‘the system’ has always come very easily to me.
The desire for integrity, to ‘do good’, is deeply ingrained within the human psyche. Integrity’s conflict with the almighty dollar was the theme of the Academy Award winning movie ‘Jerry Maguire’. In the film, Tom Cruise plays a stereotypical Type-A personality sports agent who develops a guilty conscience about the greed and dishonesty of his firm. One night, after eating a couple of pieces of pizza, his character is consumed with how he thinks the company could ethically operate better. He then writes a mission statement calling for explicit honourability and circulates it throughout the office. Of course, he finds himself out of a job the next day, but in the end, as it almost always does in the movies, integrity prevails. The movie’s moral is that you can make money by doing all the right things and, ultimately, live a more gratifying life. In Jerry’s case, this also includes an adorable step-kid and Renee Zellweger, which isn’t a bad consolation prize, considering.
Recently, we witnessed a similar real-life situation when Greg Smith, an up-and-coming executive at Wall Street investment giant, Goldman Sachs, very publicly announced his resignation and a dirty laundry list of the reasons for it in an OP-ED piece in The New York Times. He cited, among other things, that Goldman Sachs’ company culture was no longer about servicing the client, and that making money had become the only concern. Smith also alleged they had no ethics about not only misusing, but abusing the client to meet their money-making objectives. Smith further claimed the firm unloaded unprofitable products on clients, whom the executives condescendingly referred to as ‘Muppets’. He then called on the Goldman Sachs Board of Directors to fix the culture so the people who work at Goldman Sachs, work there for the right reasons.
Interesting concept, no?
Shockingly, after resigning in one of the world’s most famous newspapers, Smith’s letter went viral, and next thing you know Goldman’s stock plummets 3% which doesn’t sound like much until you consider that it was the third largest loss in the company’s 143 year history. Not exactly a drop in the bucket. Not surprisingly, there were many reactions to his accusations. Some thought he was noble because he took the moral high road and walked away from a job that probably paid him in the paper equivalent of solid gold bars. Others thought he was naïve as, last time anyone checked, Goldman Sachs isn’t in the business of losing money. In fact, one classy hedge fund manager responded by saying, “What’s the next shocking headline, that there is prostitution in Vegas?” Like he doesn’t know.
I could rant and rave indignantly here, and insist that Wall Street is too vital to the world’s economy to entertain Smith’s allegations as fact. I could encourage everyone to rise up and say that we, the little guys, ought to band together to hold the institutions to account and demand, demand I say! Or that the existing leadership vacuum is filled with people we can trust.
Or, I could suggest that the threat of relentless public shaming would be enough to compel the leaders of these giant firms to start making the kinds of cultural change necessary to bring their actions in line with our morals, values and expectations. Because if they don’t, we’ll show up carrying pitchforks.
Instead, I would like to address the cynical belief that making money and serving the client at the same time is nothing more than an unattainable ideal.
It is no secret that capitalism means making money. By taking real-world risks, capitalists offer customers an intrinsically valuable product or service, at a reasonable price, and on fair and honest terms. And many companies do exactly that. It’s just that some companies wobble out of balance and making money becomes their only consideration.
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be that way.
It is possible for companies to ‘do well’ and ‘do good’ at the same time simply by weaving between the two objectives, focusing first on one and then on the other, and always considering both in their decision-making process, but only if this balance is made a priority.
Do you want to know what would be great? If Goldman Sachs rehired Smith and made him their Ethics Manager. I mean, really. That would more than satisfy my desire to see the system improve itself but more than that, we could all have a real-life example of what happens in the movies.
Show me the money. And the ethics that go along with it.