Why John Mackey and Richard Branson should break bread together

Richard Branson launches the Bteam on June 14th

Richard Branson launches the Bteam on June 14th

Most of the public,  in the UK especially, has heard of Richard Branson – the flamboyant, fun loving, self-made, successful, philanthropic, provocative, charming entrepreneur;  Head of the Virgin Group, and sporting a well deserved reputation for generating publicity, supporting the underdog and championing good causes. In short, Richard Branson is an influential business celebrity and heads turn when he walks down the street.

John Mackey launches Conscious Capitalism in London June 12th

John Mackey launches Conscious Capitalism in London June 12th

John Mackey, on the other hand, is a shy, serious, but passionate Texan who happens to have developed the most successful grocery business worldwide – Whole Foods. He comes across as an intensely curious, philosophic, serious entrepreneur whose experience has shaped some strong convictions.  John Mackey proudly takes his personal rice cooker everywhere so he can start his day with a highly nutritious but cheap (30cents) breakfast. He considers himself a committed capitalist but one fully aware of its deficiencies and on a mission to correct them. Very few heads would turn even if he were to walk down Sunset Boulevard. And yet he and his colleagues, as initially identified by Professor Raj Sisodia in Firms of Endearment, are having a considerable impact on the business community in US, Australia and now parts of Europe.

While, in terms of surface appearances and style, they seem poles apart, Branson and Mackey are united on the things that matter so I can’t help but think what magic could happen if they were to meet and work actively together. They have more in common than you think. Addressing their differences would move both of their agendas forward.

It would certainly make for a fascinating dinner party:

  1. Both share a belief that the narrative associated with business and capitalism needs changing. Branson in his own colourful style thinks that business as usual should be screwed – see Screw Business as Usual – and focus more on doing good. Mackey, co-author of Conscious Capitalism,  wants to “liberate the heroic spirit of business” by helping business leaders become conscious.
  2. Both believe that profit isn’t the end, it’s a means to achieving a higher purpose.  In fact, it is the passionate pursuit of a purpose designed to benefit both society and individuals that creates profit. Both – consciously or not – build on the work of such luminaries as Willis Harman, John Renesch (see my brief acknowledgment here ) and Paul Hawken, who suggested back in the late 1970s that business was the only institution with the capacity to address the problems facing humanity.
  3. Both have recently committed to proselytizing this message. Richard Branson has formed a number of major initiatives such as Virgin Unite, The Elders and Carbon War Room that have all shaped his latest initiative – www.bteam.org.  John Mackey has teamed up with a number of other brands and created the Conscious Capitalist Institute and recently launched a book, called Conscious Capitalism. They both launched these initiatives in the same week but sadly their paths didn’t cross.
  4. Both believe very strongly in empowering the people who work in their companies to take responsibility, experiment, and lead at whatever level in the company they work and take any and every opportunity to grow personally and professionally. They know the power of a nurturing corporate culture to unleash passion, creativity and innovation. As a consequence, they each embody many of the characteristics of a Conscious Leader and each endeavours to “walk the values talk.”
  5. Richard Branson strikes me as more of a conventional motivator who prefers to delegate the details of execution to his team. John Mackey is also a great delegator and motivator but perhaps has a clearer, deeper idea of the “how” as well as the “why”.  The Conscious Capitalism text is rich in practical advice and applications that show how capitalism can be tweaked to become a true wealth generator as opposed to wealth spinner. Screw Business As Usual is more of an autobiographical tale, more anecdotal than prescriptive.
  6. Both men have created enormous financial value for themselves and all their stakeholders. They enjoy high levels of staff loyalty and engagement from employees, suppliers and the communities in which they operate.  As illustrated in Conscious Capitalism, there is no doubt that the approach promoted by both men works – conscious companies are proven to outperform their non-conscious peers financial by several factors to one (See Appendix A to Conscious Capitalism).

So why do I hope these two men will have a private dinner soon to explore ways of collaborating – a virtue each claims to value highly?

The opportunity lies in exploring their different approaches.

The Conscious Capitalists, as described in Mackey and Sisodia’s book seem more focused on “the business of business” and ways to improve it than the context in which business operates. They recognize the environment as a key stakeholder but only one of several stakeholders and, as such, “conscious businesses refuse to accept trade-offs for the environment, just as they do for other stakeholders.”

Out of a total 300+ pages, only 12 are devoted to the environment as stakeholder and, of these, four are devoted to the Whole Foods approach to sustainable livestock production, animal welfare and seafood sustainability.  This view seems to ignore the fact that Nature is not another human stakeholder whose needs must be met – albeit after some trade-offs  – but an autonomous, self-regulating system of which humans are a part and that Nature operates according to its own laws regardless of whether you believe it to be conscious or not. Two paragraphs from the book distill the Conscious Capitalist (Whole Foods) approach:

conscious capitalismWe will save our environmental challenges in the same way we solve all challenges: by raising consciousness, encouraging creativity and innovation, and recognizing and rewarding virtuous behavior… (Conscious Capitalism, page 151)

 Conscious capitalism recognizes that our natural resources are ultimately finite and must be protected and conserved. But it also recognizes that our inner creativity and inner resources are infinite, provided we can learn how to activate and deploy them. As emphasized earlier, the most powerful form of human energy on the planet is a turned-on, fully alive and awake human being.” (Conscious Capitalism page 292)

While it is impossible to resist this noble aspiration, it has a similar ring to Adam Smith’s invisible hand that has remained far too invisible to have really helped. The big IF in this case being whether we can produce fully turned-on, fully alive and awake human beings fast enough.

The participants in the Bteam – many of whom, consciously or not, practice the four tenets of conscious capitalism (higher purpose, stakeholder alignment; servant leadership and development of empowering cultures) appear much more aware of and focused on the challenges of the environmental and social context in which they operate. I can’t say with certainty but I suspect, if asked, they would demonstrate higher levels of agreement with the statement that “the economy and society are subsidiaries of the environment” than might the Conscious Capitalists.

The Higher Purpose of the Bteam is specifically focused:

“Our vision of the future is a world in which the purpose of business is to be a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit” 

Both groups agree that being driven by the profit motive alone is no longer acceptable.

The Bteam believes that profit will accrue from directly addressing the social, environmental and economic challenges head on. The Conscious Capitalists seem to believe that by setting a higher purpose, learning to serve all stakeholders, create empowering cultures and leading consciously, the conditions for tackling those issues will be created.

Because the Bteam has this external focus, they believe that business also needs to address accounting systems (pay for externalities), address the issue of destructive subsidies or tax policies, and help develop new corporate forms, hybrids and partnerships that deliver benefit to people and planet.

Given the magnitude of the challenges facing humanity right now, these are admittedly minor differences between two very noble endeavours.

The Bteam talks about a new leadership underpinned by a moral compass that is Fair, Honest, Positive and Creative founded on cooperation.

The Conscious Capitalists’ Credo states that “business is good because it creates value, it is ethical because it is based on voluntary exchange, it is noble because it can elevate our existence, and it is heroic because it can lift people out of poverty and create prosperity….But we can aspire to something even greater.”

Sadly the references to the excesses of greed expressed by many businesses is not acknowledged and thereby the power of Mackey’s aspiration undermined.

What’s Missing?

In this assessment of what unites and distinguishes Conscious Capitalism and the Bteam I became aware of one missing element that is perhaps implicit in both approaches but needs to be made explicit – and that, again, is MIND-SET, or Worldview.

barrett NLPNeither proponent articulates the need to see the world differently before we can be and act differently. It’s true that as we develop our consciousness, these shifts in perception will occur. Richard Barrett, founder of the Values Centre, and author of the New Leadership Paradigm,  whose pioneering and seminal work on values and corporate culture deserves far more attention than it is getting, has shown how our unexamined assumptions, values and beliefs shift as we rise in consciousness. We move naturally from seeing ourselves at the centre of our own universe to ourselves as an interdependent part of a bigger system of which we are each an essential part- in other words, from “I “to “We” and from “I am insignificant” to “I must be the change I wish to see in the world”.  When CEOs and investors truly embrace a perspective of utter inter-dependence and connection increasing their rates of  compensation at rates 10X the national average will be unthinkable and not in their best interest.

I believe that both the Bteam and the Conscious Capitalists will accelerate adoption of their respective agendas faster to the extent that they can reveal the ways in which the assumptions underpinning industrial-materialism simply don’t work anymore and that our understanding of complex, adaptive self-organising systems is infinitely more relevant and effective than a worldview that sees the universe as a machine that needs to be engineered/managed  or as a lumberyard of resources to be exploited and plundered.

It’s true – we’ve come a very long way in half a decade when such a comparison between two great thought leaders would have been impossible. So we mustn’t let these great ships of progress pass in the night. There is so much to be gained by mutual recognition and support plus healthy debate and exchange. The challenge now is for these concepts to rapidly move from the fringe to the “new normal” only then will it make sense for marginal differentiation to occur.

Where Does Conscious Travel Fit?  
Conscious Travel is currently a movement and a model that applies the principles of conscious capitalism to the provision of hospitality and travel services to create a less harmful alternative to mass industrial tourism. It will become a collaborative network of action-oriented learning communities that develop various Plan Bs suitable for their places.  The learning starts with the inner mindset of the host and their awareness of the context in which they live so that they can assume responsibility for both protecting and regenerating the landscapes and cultures on which they depend and generate a higher net return to all stakeholders.  By working up from communities that celebrate the uniqueness of their place while applying the generic principles that uphold conscious capitalism, conscious hosts will offer an antidote to the commoditization and diminishing returns that plague modern tourism. They  generate creative, resilient and truly sustainable economies around welcoming and serving guests.

Southwest Airlines, Joie de Vivre Hospitality (Chip Conley), Kempinski Hotel Group ( see Conscious Hoteliers Show They Care) and recently Intrepid Travel have been identified as Conscious Capitalists or have been associated with the Conscious Capitalist movement. Virgin Airlines, and Virgin Travel will presumably form part of the Bteam. While there’s plenty of room for other major Fortune 500 travel companies to join them, Conscious Travel is really focusing on the helping the vast majority of tourism hosts – the small,  medium sized providers – to follow the lead of these emlightened pioneers.

More Information

For the launch of the Bteam, see: http://bteam.org/leadership/watch-the-plan-b-kick-off-livestream/

For the launch of Conscious Capitalism in San Franciso, see: http://www.consciouscapitalism.org/cc2013/video#video_player

Related Posts

Screw Tourism As Usual

What is Conscious Capitalism?

Is Conscious Capitalism Business 3.0?

Tourism What’s The Point

One Response to “Why John Mackey and Richard Branson should break bread together”

  1. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but
    after I clicked submit my comment didn’t appear. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Regardless, just wanted to say superb blog!

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