The Political World of Business
“This is like a musical chairs game at a Hooters restaurant. The sort of sexist innuendo and the deception and sleaze and all the celebrity name-dropping. And then your primary goal is not to invent some new product for society or deal with some rising competitor up over the horizon or some disruptive new technology. No! It’s to kill off your coworker. It’s an elimination game. Where in the business world would that ever work? You’d destroy your team. Who do you lead? You have nobody left to lead. You’ve killed them all off! It made no sense.”
These were Jeffrey Sonnenfeld’s first impressions of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice.
In his corner office in the Yale School of Management, a blizzard of loose papers (the byproduct of a rabid devotion to his work), the Senior Associate Dean of Leadership Studies Jeffrey Sonnenfeld mentioned how an initially hostile media feud over the merits of Trump’s show led to an unlikely friendship.
“He offered me the presidency of Trump University,” he told The Politic, recounting his first meeting with Trump. “I thought he was going to then take me to litigation. We wound up becoming friends. I said you just have to change the model of the show; he [President Trump] said ‘I can’t. Jack Welch is responsible.’”
Welch, the CEO of General Electric, which owned NBC, was captivated by CBS’s Survivor’s elimination format. Adapting to Welch’s inflexibility, Sonnenfeld presented a new pitch to Trump.“Don’t get engaging young millennials then as the model for kids to identify with. Why don’t you get these fallen celebrities…these people all deserve each other,” he remembered suggesting.
“That became the origins of The Celebrity Apprentice”, he concluded, “which [Trump] now admits was my creation, which I got zero royalties for.”
With Sonnenfeld’s idea, Donald Trump rebranded his existing show from The Apprentice to The Celebrity Apprentice, increasing viewership. This furthered his reputation as a household name synonymous to shrewd negotiator, a perception that served as the launching pad for his unexpected seizure of the White House. But, as Sonnenfeld notes, this show was built on a false perception of what really makes a good leader in the business world.
“It turns out his negotiation tactics aren’t working well,” Sonnenfeld surmised. “His solitary tool has been a divide and conquer tool which he used to use on the Apprentice… Business leaders always revolted against that but they weren’t public about it.”
They may not have been public about it then, but it time for business leaders to be public about it now. We saw them do this after the horrifying violence that consumed Charlottesville and the president’s unacceptable failure to denounce the white supremacists who had conducted it. There is plenty of room to do more.
Business leaders occupy a unique position in our society in that they hold simultaneously not only institutional power but also a form of emotional power. Their institutional power stems from the fact that they lead large corporations that hold great stakes in the country’s policies and are at the forefront of innovation. But their emotional power comes from the certain amount of leverage they have in influencing and addressing the concerns of their consumer base as a result of the business they conduct with them regularly. Every day, their employees greet customers with a smile and pleasantries, helping them find the perfect product, and often making them feel special by remembering the regulars and showing interest in them as people, naturally building rapport. They do this all without ever uttering a political word, remaining a pleasant thought in their customers’ minds if they conduct their service well.
So, what if a leader can get his or her workforce to understand the severity of an issue he or she cares about? What if a leader establishes a corporate culture invested in addressing the issues at the forefront of our society? What if a leader can motivate employees to reach out to customers and coworkers, those customers who view the employees as apolitical individuals and take the time to listen to their problems while also educating them about the issues that the business has taken a stand on?
This country is in a polarized position where people have trouble internalizing how the “opposition’s” experiences have led them to their positions. Businesses can be a tool to change that.
“Empathy is not built through the head,” Matthew Dowd, Chief Analyst at ABC News, told The Politic. “It’s built through the heart and sort of trying to relate to people, even though they may be on a different perspective as you, from a heart level of understanding of there are certain things that we share: we have certain experiences that have caused either joy or pain. And then once you make that step, you can have a head conversation about policies, politics, values, and all those other things.”
Businesses provide an avenue for real social change where people can learn to connect on a personalized level. No one’s asking them to lecture their customers at every opportunity, but there remains an untapped potential for creating more understanding in our society simply by making an effort to listen to customers and establishing corporate cultures that are willing to take a stand and mobilize on key issues.
“Business is a part of driving the moral compass of society. And people choose to spend their dollars in places where they feel like companies are being the most socially responsible towards people,” Carmen Berkley, the former Civil, Human, and Women’s Rights Director of The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) told The Politic. Through her extensive career as an activist for civil, human, and women’s rights, Berkley has observed how valuable businesses can be in fighting for social change.
“On a much larger level I think that there are businesses that are trying to figure out how do we bring on more people of color, more women…,” said Berkley, “I think businesses are going to be at the forefront of racial equality and gender equality in this country. And if they see that as their responsibility to think through this, I think it could actually change how people feel about people of color in this country,”
I have come to believe the more people come in contact with each other, sharing some of their experiences, the more they understand their point of views. And valuing empathy in business not only helps promote one’s own beliefs but also is valuable for a stronger work environment and growing a consumer base.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld recognized how the United Parcel Service, by strategically making their managers former lower level employees, can now effectively address the concerns of their employees because their managers more easily empathize with them due to their former occupations.
Reflecting on this, he told The Politic:“Even in labor relations discussions, the teamsters’ bargaining people are former academics, DC policy hacks, or whatever who probably never drove a package car, never drove a truck, and may never have been teamsters whereas ironically the managers negotiating for UPS are all former truck drivers. They understand the rank and file at least as well if not better than the people who are paid to operate on their behalf. That’s really valuable.”
Valuing empathy for your employees is one thing, but business leaders often don’t know when it is appropriate to take a stance on political issues and a worried about consumer backlash. This can lead to sometimes very tone deaf messages.
Berkley has a simple answer: “Where it’s always appropriate is where a company feels there’s an injustice that is happening amongst a community that is a primary consumer of a business… I think companies should spend less time worrying about what they shouldn’t say and more time trying to understand their consumer base so they can get more people buying their products.”
The key for business leaders to effectively advocate for political issues is authenticity. When companies truly contemplate their values and reflect them in their advocacy, they are less likely to be chided for them. But they have to mean what they say and say what they mean.
The oil company BP prided itself on recognizing climate change before their competitors, but Sonnenfeld noted how their lack of authenticity undermined their reputation.
“The CEO John Brown never missed a microphone, a stage, a stadium, a classroom to celebrate the progressive nature of BP,” he said. “In fact, they even had an ad campaign. [BP] doesn’t stand for ‘British Petroleum’, but it stands for ‘Beyond Petroleum’. But after a while, it started to look like they stood for ‘Beyond Principle’. And in fact, they may have operated no worse than their competitors, but they liked to label their competitors as the bad guys. They were the good guys, so they had an exalted standard to live by, and in fact they had tremendous problems where they didn’t live up to their standards.”
BP ended up being responsible for a number of spills in Alaska, easily preventable deaths on their work sites in Texas City, Texas, and the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The public backlash from these tragedies was even more vicious as a result of the hypocrisy in BP touting themselves as being more environmentally conscious than the industry.
Of course, there is the general concern that many businesses leaders are not willing to be advocates and that many believe it is unreasonable to expect them to be.
“The business community is frequently in the position of lobbying for policies that reduce aggregate demand and that is not good for economic growth,” Damon Silver, Director of Policy and Special Counsel for the AFL-CIO, told The Politic. “And so they ought to do less of that but asking the business community as a whole to do things like lobby for an increased minimum wage or other measures that increase workers’ bargaining power is kind of like asking the leopard not to eat the gazelle.”
That’s where as a society we need to do the most work. We need to train leaders who at their core understand that they are a part of a larger environment whose health they have both an ethical and personal stake in and who feel motivated to take action.
“I think one of the biggest problems with our leadership is poverty of the soul and some level of understanding of the importance of spirituality. And by that I don’t mean necessarily religion. Often times those are two different things.” Dowd relayed. “In every spiritual path, it always requires a practice of centering of some kind – whether it’s through prayer, meditation, or some practice – that centers you on some sort of fundamental universal values…Part of the problem with leaders today is that they think that the best thing is tactics or action. Actually the first step is some movement inward towards a level of contemplation and reflection…I would hope that as we evolve and become more enlightened that the schools understand how important that is especially our schools that train people in being MBAs.”
According to Silvers, “The phrase that’s typically used in business school today is one that really suggests what management needs to be doing is treating the company almost as though it’s constantly in liquidation mode, ‘A company is a printing press for printing cash, and you ought to see if you can get as much cash out of it while you can’. You miss entirely the fact that a company is a social instrument for wealth creation. By a social instrument, what I mean is, a successful company is able to draw upon the efforts of talents and resources of constituents with a lot of different arrangements with that company and it does so through time. And if you treat it as though everything is an auction every day, you’re not going to be successful and then on top of that, you’re operating in a society; you’re both dependent on the health of that society.”
I believe that the most effective strategy to motivate business leaders to take action is to recognize a middle ground. We need to instill in our leaders, like Dowd argued, values that strive for a higher purpose, one grounded in caring for others. For some, spirituality might be the route to take. For others, it could be an independently forged moral code. Silver’s argument, more tailored for the business pragmatism, also has its merits. If leaders focus more on long term growth and wealth creation, it seems they will be more likely to be invested in societal factors that constrain or promote that growth. The two educational approaches can work together, inspiring both leaders’ narrow industry focused thought and broader personal ethics to be concerned with the issues pressing our society.
Ultimately, what I find most important is Dowd’s advice for college students who don’t want to go into public service but hope to remain involved with issues they care about: “Everything is politics today,” he said. “Broaden your knowledge. Don’t just study business things. Study a wide variety of things. Understand history, understand literature, understand philosophy, understand spirituality. Then figure out what part you want to play in it.”