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Its time to stand up against profit at all cost

On the back of the upheavals in the north of the continent in which we are based, this blog article focuses on the financial world we live in and how we define success.

Global environmental evidence overwhelmingly shows that abuse in the name of profit is killing our planet. At the same time, social pressure on an economic system that is perceived to make profit at the expense of the broader community is growing. ‘Maximising shareholder benefit’ – often at all cost – as the main driver of economic effort has resulted in disproportionately benefiting a few. It is clear that there are structural shifts necessary. But what will these be?

It’s time for a newsletter again and, as always, there’s no lack of relevant topics, only a lack of time to trawl through some of the thought leadership out there and put our own thoughts together in a coherent and structured manner.

The financial world has still not settled down and with the upheavals in the north of the continent I live in, the consequent rise in the oil price and inflationary pressures, we could be in for another challenging year.

The social and economic structure of the world continues to be challenged across a spectrum of indices. This newsletter will explore some of these challenges and where we think some of the solutions might lie.


By Danie Eksteen - This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

While waiting for a friend in one of Cape Town’s best coffee roasteries, I stumbled across a very interesting newspaper article on developments in China. Premier Wen Jiabao in his state of the nation address reportedly expressed concern about not reaching their core goal of establishing a fairer society and reducing the wage gap. “The first step is to make a part of the people rich and the next step is to make everyone rich,” he said. A leading economist commented that “They have already done a great job on the first step. Some people have gotten very rich. But the second step is lagging behind.”[1]

It will be interesting to see if premier Wen manages to realise his intentions. China follows in the footsteps of a predecessor world leader who did not come close to meeting these ideals. Consider some of the following numbers:

• In the USA in 1953 executive compensation was the equivalent of 22% of corporate profit – by 1987 it was 61%.[2]
• Between 1979 and 1988 the salaries of Chief Executives in the USA increased from 29 times to 93 times the income of the average manufacturing worker. That’s an almost 65 times increase in just 9 years.
• 77% of all shareholder wealth in the USA is owned by only 5% of the population, among whom are the directors who are partly compensated through company shares.[3]

However, the disparity stretches far beyond the USA. In 1997 the world’s richest 447 billionaires had a combined net worth roughly equivalent to the annual income of the poorest half of the world’s population (2,7 billion people), and of the world’s 100 largest economies only 49 are countries, the rest are global corporations.[4][5]

An interesting recent development is that the number of billionaires in leading emerging economies (normally associated with high levels of poverty and disparity in income levels) has surpassed the number of those in Europe and is quickly closing in on the US. Also, the economic meltdown of the last couple of years has seemingly served the richest quite nicely. The total number of billionaires in Asia tripled in the past two years (!) and the total number of billionaires in the world rose to a record of 1 210 in 2011.[6]

Closer to home, that same newspaper reported that according to the 2011 edition of Who Owns Whom, the 15 highest paid directors of the JSE together earned a total of R662-million last year, an average of R41-million each, which included performance bonuses and a 20% gain in the value of shares. This was in a year when workers on average achieved a 9.3% wage increase and received a huge amount of criticism for fighting for it.


Global environmental evidence overwhelmingly shows that abuse in the name of profit is killing our planet. At the same time, social pressure on an economic system that is perceived to make profit at the expense of the broader community is growing. ‘Maximising shareholder benefit’ – often at all cost – as the main driver of economic effort has resulted in disproportionately benefiting a few.

It is clear that there are structural shifts necessary. But what will these be?

Re-think the core purpose of corporations
In a comprehensive article in Harvard Business Review (HBR), Porter and Kramer[7] argue for a redefinition of the purpose of the corporation to be to create shared value (societal benefit) rather than simply profit. They argue that the pursuit of short-term profit has been done while ignoring: longer term sustainability; the wellbeing of their customers and the economic distress of the communities in which they produce and sell; and the depletion of the natural resources they are dependent on for survival. A societal purpose and responsibility should be at the organisational core rather than at the periphery, which is where Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) currently lies.

The solution they propose is an expansion of the current pool of resources, rather than sharing/ re-distributing it, by rethinking all the elements in the organisational value chain for greater innovation, efficiencies, collaborations and productivity, while at all times considering the core communal/ societal ‘bottom-line’ imperative.

Though many examples are given of organisations that have gone the Corporate Social Value (CSV) route, the writers acknowledge that it will not be optimally achieved without government regulations that encourage and incentivise this.

Re-think the organisational funding model
The role of capital markets and stock analysts in driving the current state of the world in favour of ‘the shareholder’ (a small minority, as we have seen) can surely not be underestimated. In 1993, it was estimated that 96%[8] of all investment was ‘parasitic’, i.e. investors betting on stocks – with very little interest in the long-term future of the company and the communities that it influences.

Is there and alternative? In a recent HBR interview, Prof Rita McGrath, from New York’s Columbia Business School, said she expects a different approach to investment to come out of the current wave of business model changes. She argues that family controlled businesses have a better record of patient investing compared to the impatient private equity players.[9] They are also more likely to be kept accountable by the community they live and work in.

Re-think the organisation as a community within an interdependent organism
The author Scott Peck argues that by introducing genuine community into your business, you will guarantee its ethical integrity.[10] We want to add that an organisation with a well-developed internal community consciousness would naturally make better decisions for the benefit of the whole, including the external community. A values-driven approach, in our experience, guides organisations in this process.

Re-think the definition of success (“how much is enough?”)
The corporate facade has individuals behind it. Ultimately it is individuals who make decisions, who make up management and boards, who drive organisational direction. It is individuals who determine the level of organisational stewardship, individual values that steer organisations to a short-term profit-driven approach and individual egos for whom the indication of their success lies in the accumulation of more wealth. Can a shift in individual thinking contribute to an overall shift?

In his book the Paradox of Success, John R. O’Neil (then the president of the California School of Professional Psychology) amongst others blames the pervasive societal definition of success for what he called a ‘decade of greed’ in the 1980s. O’Neil defines the Western definition of ‘mythical success’, as he calls it, as ‘a potent compound of wealth, power, privilege and freedom from care’, and I would add, more recently fame.

O’Neil’s definition of mythical success calls for individual reflection on how each one of us has or is being influenced directly by this concept, and on our definitions of what it means to be successful and how this has influenced the bigger picture. We would like to argue that moving the definition of success from something external, to something internal, might be an important way in which all of us can contribute positively towards the challenges facing our globe. Maybe a shift in how we define success will influence senior executives’ ethics about ‘how much is enough’?


On a corporate level, Strategic Human Capital Consulting has vast experience in objectively assisting organisations in thinking through their organisational strategies and how they need to adjust these in view of external realities and challenges.

On an individual level, if you don’t know or don’t like your answers to questions like: ‘What does success mean for me?’ and ‘When have I earned enough?’ – maybe it’s time that you approach a coach. We have access to a network of excellent and well-qualified coaches that can assist you.


1] China focuses on curbing price rises, Zhou Xin & Koh Gui Qing, Cape Times, Business Report, 7 March 2011
2] The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin, New York
3] Today’s Stock Investment Dilemma, Perspectives on Business and Global Change, Vol. 11, No. 2, World Business Academy 1997.
4] The Top 200: The Rise of the Global Corporate Power, Institute for Policy Studies, Washington 1996
5] All the references above as referred to in Liberating the Corporate Soul, Richard Barrett
6] Bric’s billionaires outnumber Europe’s, Allan Rappeport, Financial Times, March 10 2011
7] Creating Shared Value, How to reinvent capitalism and unleash a wave of innovation and growth, Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer, Harvard Business review, Jan-Feb 2011
8] Ibid 3
9] When your business model in trouble, Harvard Business review, Jan-Feb 2011, p.96
10] Interview with M. Scott Peck in April 1994, as reported on in Liberating the Corporate Soul, Richard Barrett, 1998


#3 Peter Herring
2012-11-10 11:37
Danie, thanks for responding. I'm not crazy about using vast words like happiness, either - why I added an "if you will..." when I used it. Yes, the internet. Wikipedia. Thousands of examples of crowdsourcing. Games, particularly games for social good.

A great book on the latter: Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. My favorite example is the game Foldit, fairly well known story now. Scientists using meag computers try to solve the puzzle of a protein molecule - an aids related enzyme - for 14 years. They create a game, Foldit, and throw the problem to gamers. It is solved in 10 days. What did the gamers get? In our usual way of looking at it - nothing. They loved the challenge. We will be using both gamification and crowdsourcing in the launch of our company, trovi, creating a challenge for the launch community that no one else has solved.

I actually believe that people are driven by challenge, by the need for adventure - that may be "happiness".
#2 Danie
2012-11-10 11:25
Hi Peter

Thanks for great input! Just a few comments - maybe more later :)

I personally don’t like the term ‘happiness’ as that often creates other challenges (see the book ‘The Happiness Trap’), but I really like your suggested term wellbeing.

In response to ‘People, it turns out, love to do things for other people, for the challenge, for the intrinsic satisfaction...’, the best example I can think of is the internet. Isn’t it amazing that most of it (in the early days) was not built by people being paid for it, but simply cause of the intrinsic satisfaction that it gave them

#1 Peter Herring
2012-11-09 20:07
This is a thoughtful article, thanks. Some, hopefully, cogent remarks.

The article proposes a value driven approach to companies; I agree, & suggest a value driven approach to our economy as a whole. That entails a large, overdue conversation amongst many people - that conversation begins (as the article also suggests) with each of us. One of the roots of the word wealth is weal - simply, well being. I believe we should reclaim it. Wealth is not money. Wealth is the sum of things that contribute to our well-being. What well-being means to us is a conversation, and one we should be having individually, locally, globally. Because our answer will form the foundation of a value driven economy.

Given the place that a value-less, money-only based economy has brought us to, this may be THE question worth pondering now. It is not a matter to tacking values onto a money economy - we already do that. We have philanthropists & nonprofits; we also have ever more problems. It could easily be argued that a value-less economy creates the very problems that it purports to alleviate through "corporate giving" precisely via the act of placing our values outside of the economy. From this point of view, so long as those human values that we hold most dear are outside of the consideration of our economy, they will always come last. They will continue to hold their hands out, trying to "prove their value".

Many studies show us that focusing on extrinsic values makes us unhappy; focusing on self-growth & helping/participating with others makes us happy. Now we have an economy that makes us progressively unhappier, while the very superfluity of stuff we unhappily consume destroys our planet. Clearly, a good time to stop & ask the question, what actually contributes to our well being, or, if you will, what makes us happy? (I believe this is the deeper question underlying the question suggested in the article: "How much is enough?") That deep personal & cultural answer is - again - the foundation of a value-driven economy.

Your statement (we need to rethink capitalism, not scrap it) is valid, but involves, I believe, the preamble of these very deep questions. We have made a basic mistake. We let money, which has no value, become the determiner of what is valued. It's backwards. Money has a use; it's a form of potential energy that catalyzes projects (projects themselves are achieved through various energies - human work, talent, intelligence, etc...) Money is more like information (also energy) than anything else. As such, money is actually given value by what we value, what we choose to use it for.

I remember being a student in math class, looking at different based number systems - it stretched the mind. Similarly, imagining a value-based economy stretches us. (We can't do it by quantifying everything to its monetary cost - that's a sneaky way of maintaining a money-based economy.) I believe it will look something like this: we have a "wealth (wellbeing) index" - or happiness index if you like - that we agree on. We measure ourselves by how well we fulfill that. We put our energy into producing those aspects of life that create wellbeing. Sometimes that energy is money - which, again, is a catalyzing force for other energies. Sometimes, money is not even required. People, it turns out, love to do things for other people, for the challenge, for the intrinsic satisfaction - not a penny required. In fact, we do nearly everything we value this way.

There are whole new economies forming, often local, predicated on sharing, swapping, collaboratively consuming, even using alternative currencies. They work. Capitalism also has a place here, I believe. But it will be a capitalism that understands its place as a tool, an energy among others, driven by our values. I don't believe that we can create this new capitalism by staring at existing capitalism and tweaking it. I believe we start by turning our gaze around, to ourselves.

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