Steven DuPuis at TEDx Naperville
My dad loved model trains. He enjoyed hunting through hobby shops to find a unique steam engine or boxcar, but what he loved more were the rich conversations he would have with each shop owner. As a ten-year-old I tagged along on one of his trips. I was walking behind my dad through the narrow aisles of a well-stocked hobby shop when he suddenly stopped and turned. His eyes grew wide as he spotted several boxes of old Model Railroader magazines. They were the years he was missing to complete his collection. Excited by his find my dad bought them all. In the process of paying he mentioned to the shop owner, George, that he had charged him too little, and that George had made a mistake. George said, “No, the price is correct,” so we loaded the car and headed home. Five miles down the road my dad turned the car around and said, “This isn’t right he didn’t add it up correctly.”
My dad walked back into the store and showed George the mischarge on the bill. He had undercharged my dad by $17.50. My dad insisted on making this right because he cared about being fair and honest even in the face of being told he was wrong.
Recently I had to change my flight on a major airline. I was going to miss my original flight time so I called to re-schedule for a later flight. I have the highest frequent flyer status with the airline so I can change a flight for $75.00 as long as the change is on the same day. In this instance I was informed that the airline had three seats available, however, they would have to charge me $1,100. The customer service representative said it was their policy to charge the full amount in case they could sell the last minute ticket for full price. This must have been in tiny print at the bottom of the rules and policies that no one reads. I asked to speak to a manager. I was put on hold and then given the same response, “It’s our policy.”
The company didn’t care about my situation. Even with my loyalty to their brand they put systems in place to make sure they didn’t have to care. Have we created organizations that are simply too big to care?
I am amazed at how everyone has a story about a similar situation where companies are too big to care. People are eager to share their stories of injustice and lack of caring with big companies including cable companies, health insurance, food companies, cell phone services, auto dealerships and banks. Everyone feels helpless in his or her situation. They complain but feel nothing can be done about it and even continue to do business with these companies. This prompts the question, “do we care?” Has our behavior perpetuated global apathy?
Caring comes from feeling and having empathy for one another. You could say that the bigger an organization gets, the smaller you feel and the less you feel you matter.
Can caring be scalable? Within a growing business everything appears to be scalable but caring gets lost with size. The bigger an organization becomes, the more it builds organizational structures of command and control by putting in place layers of policies and procedures meant to maximize profits and efficiencies. These structures are the building blocks to dismantling caring and they are dehumanizing.
Recently I was at the check out line at my local grocery store and I watched as the checker greeted each customer exactly the same way. When it was my turn she said, “Good afternoon. How is your day going?” I replied, “You must get tired of saying that all day.” She whispered back, “I am required to say it. In fact, corporate spot checks us by sending people through the lines to make sure we are saying it, and we can be fired if we are caught greeting customers incorrectly.”
Wow! A forced caring policy is incredibly inauthentic.
The fundamental idea of human commerce defined as or the exchange of services with feelings seems to have disappeared. Commerce is more than financial exchange— it’s also a social transaction between people. In fact, the Latin for commerce means “come-together.” Shopping began as trading and bartering. Today, shopping accounts for 2/3 of the U.S. economy. That’s trillions of dollars of careless exchanges. It’s no wonder we have so many self-help books on happiness and relationships. It’s because our purchases are not fulfilling. Economists and marketers call these exchanges consumer spending. The worse part is that we aren’t even called people. We are called consumers. How dehumanizing is that?
Think back to your most memorable shopping experience. The ones you remember are those that created an emotional connection between yourself and others. It may have been the artist, the inventor or the salesperson who inspired you to make a purchase. Services and the exchange of goods are not just transactional. There is an emotional, human element that stirs empathy and caring within us. This is the very reason we are drawn to the local, the handmade and the artisanal. We want human touch and interaction. In fact the success of farmers’ markets is attributed to the personal connections we have with farmers, ranchers and chefs. These desires, however, are not stopping fast advances in technology. There is an increase in auto-attendants, call centers, automation, AI and data analytics that continue to dehumanize commerce.
“Too big to care,” is about dehumanizing our values, or the emotional investment, which are at the very heart of trade and commerce.
An entrepreneur typically launches their company with strong values, which then leads to profits. These leaders have created a meaningful human purpose that is expressed inside and outside of the organization, which causes the company to grow, thus allowing people to feel connected to the company.
Recently George Segal, founder of Crate & Barrel, spoke to a group of entrepreneurs. He mentioned the word love 10 times, and he ended with, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” His values continue to shape and guide his company.
Another example, Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, loved his associates and he loved to greet his consumers at the door. He cared and he lived by strong human values. Where are those values today?
Many great companies have cashed in their values for value and yet there is an expectation that we will continue to stay loyal followers. The largest companies shift their focus from values to value. Their motivations and desires are to build shareholder value and ROI is the key value. One Fortune 500 company’s mission statement reads, “Be the best investment in our industry.” It’s clear they value making money. Money used to be the result of doing and creating something inspiring and meaningful.
Some years ago I met a food scientist who had quit her job with a large food company. Her job was to find cheaper, less quality ingredients and try and make a product with a well known brand taste the same so the company could make more margin-money. In her industry it’s called cost optimization. Her personal values caused her to quit.
We are compromising our values for a basket, a box or a service of perceived value. Why do we knowingly purchase from companies that are treating their employees, the environment, and us with a lack of respect? Have we put value in de-humanizing our values?
The key element missing in the middle of these words is leadership. When you look at what drives successful companies like, Apple, Google, Tesla, Patagonia and Nike they all have key leaders who deeply care about the business and bring vision. Vision drives inspiration, meaning, and purpose and it inspires people to work together. This creates a culture of collaboration that builds trust and results in caring.
To use an analogy from my Dad’s train days, value has become the engine, while vision and values are pulled along for the ride. In fact values is the last car, the caboose. Value is PROFIT driven. Vision is being INSPIRED. Values are HUMAN.
Individuals, including management, inside value-driven companies very rarely care about the company. It is profit driven and motivated. Typically everyone is looking after themselves and his or her self-preservation and personal gain. It’s a non-caring de-humanizing environment that reflects a PROFIT-INSPIRED HUMAN.
In opposition, the most admired companies with the best reputation are also profitable. These companies all have something in common. They pull the train in the opposite direction. Values drive the business with a strong vision that inspires, followed by profit. Profit is the natural outcome of the first two. It’s how most companies start out, and some like Patagonia, Harley Davidson, Crate & Barrel and Zappo’s hold onto it. They have heart and purpose worth following. When you pull it in this direction it reads HUMAN-INSPIRED PROFIT.
Profit is a result of a well thought out vision. Profit is not a mission and if it is your people and customers will not care. Caring cannot be created or controlled through processes or policies. It is found and felt within us. It’s what makes us human.
It starts with each one of us. From the purchases we make to the money we invest we have to take into consideration what we value. What do we care about? Big or small, companies are reflections of our desires. We have to be careful that we aren’t the BIG in too big to care. It’s easy to be apathetic but our collective behaviors shape our values, and our shopping habits support them.
Caring means believing that OUR values matter. We have to look at which way our train is pulling. My dad was not a businessman but he taught me the most important thing in business – it begins and ends with caring and sometimes we have to stop… make a U-turn, and take the time to care and make things right.