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Conscious Capitalism review

Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business - 'John Mackey',  'Rajendra Sisodia'

I received a free copy of this book at an Express Employment Professionals seminar.

I couldn't read this book without thinking of GM. They had installed faulty ignition switches in many of their cars and trucks for several years. The malfunction of these switches was linked to several fatal auto accidents. At first, they did a limited recall, but as the news spread, they were called before Congress, and asked the Watergate question: What did you know about this, and when did you know it? GM has since ordered more and more recalls, and has tried to quell the rising criticism of their handling of this. Congress is involved because they gave GM a multi-billion dollar bailout in 2008. Obviously, none of that went to fix ignition switches.

One co-author is the CEO of Whole Foods, and presents a compelling book about how corporations can avoid GM's fate. Conscious Capitalism rests on 4 tenets: Higher purpose and core values, Stakeholder integration, Conscious leadership, and Conscious culture and management. The authors walk us through each of these items, and show how they can be applied to real world experiences, usually in the case of Whole Foods. It's about designing a culture where everyone wins, from the employees, to the customers to suppliers to ultimately the stockholders. It takes the traditional model of us v them and changes it to both of us. Can it work? At Whole Foods it has. It also has at other companies. The authors frequently cite The Container Store and Southwest Airlines, among others, as companies that are "conscious businesses", to use the book term. Still, not every company embraces this. One example in the book is Jack Welch at GE. One of Jack Welch's ideas was to list the bottom 10% of employees in each division, so they could identify who to fire. At first, most of the names in the bottom 10% were people who had already been fired, or were about to retire. That wasn't good enough for Jack Welch. When Jac Nasser tried this at Ford, he was roundly criticized, and soon after left the company. GE, however, is still a successful company, so businesses that are not "conscious businesses" can still work. The authors don't address this too well.

In another place, the authors use the term stakeholder cancer to refer to times when the balance between the various stakeholders is off. If the cancer is not controlled, the authors say, it could destroy the business. True, but they don't address one other possibility. In the body, if the cancer is widespread enough, it has to be removed, whether it be removal of a simple tumor, or amputation of a limb. Likewise, there are times when something that is causing the stakeholder cancer in the business must be removed to save the remainder of the business. The authors don't really address this.

A final note. The authors talk about those "misguided individuals who pursue happiness." They don't even mention Thomas Jefferson's line from the Declaration of Independence. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Given that this is in one of the most important documents in US history, I'm surprised this wasn't mentioned at all when the subject came up. How can an inalienable right endowed by our Creator be misguided? And don't all of the stakeholders want to be happy in the end? I thought that was the purpose of the "conscious business." This to me needs to be addressed in a future paperback edition of the book.

The challenge, with this or any other business book, is to put ideas into action. I've read several business books, each with its own philosophy of running a business. The authors give some general ideas, but don't go too far into specifics of how to implement this. That is probably for the best. Each company will have to find its own way to do this, and may have its own unique issues that need to be addressed. Still, the book gives an interesting alternative to business as usual. If GM had used the principles in this book, maybe they wouldn't be facing Congress now.