So, let me apologize for my rather vague title. Vague, for those who don’t know who Ebenezer Scrooge is. I tend to the theatrical, so I have a very bad habit of using such titles; sorry, I digress. Ebenezer Scrooge is the publicly hated elderly miser in Charles Dickens’ fantasy tale (A Christmas Carol). In this riveting tale, Mr Ebenezer Scrooge Esq. is described as a rich cold-hearted miser who despised Christmas. In further describing him, Charles Dickens wrote: “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheeks, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and made him speak out always in a shrewd grating voice”. His last name ended up becoming an English language word for miserliness and misanthropy. Now, is this article about Ebenezer Scrooge? Yes and no (with a lot of explanations)!
You see I am not into technical writing. My forte is to write technical and high sounding financial/business/organizational development jargon in lay man’s language; and in my quest to do this to the subject on the table, all I can think of are two characters…. Mr Ebenezer Scrooge (whom I have earlier introduced you to) and Miss. Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu (popularly known as Mother Theresa).
Both characters aptly occupy two different ends of a spectrum; ends that have always generated heated debates in boardrooms globally. Passion or profit? People/impact orientation or bottom-line focus? Mother Theresa or Ebenezer Scrooge? Which should be the focus and strategy of a mission-minded organization?
Let me start by taking a look at this from the funnel of my work experience in the last few years. Mind you, despite having an undergraduate education in Engineering, I have had work stints in banking, fintech, project management and consulting. I hold an MBA in Business Finance. And I have well over 14 years of work experience. So, don’t get it twisted; I am a dyed-in-the-wool foot soldier of the global capitalism machinery. I work for “THE MAN”, and I have enjoyed doing just that. One small twist, however; I have spent the last seven years working with not-for-profit organizations (NPOs). So, what has that got to do with anything? I am getting there.
You see, during my studies for a 2nd master’s degree (not another MBA), I took a course in Non-Governmental Organizations Management. Well, it turned out that the course was mislabeled, as all we learnt on this course was fundraising. Now, I enjoyed every bit of the course (because it was all about the “cheddars”), but one thing stood out for me, and this was it; the first thing that my professor told the class was that the fact that an organization is called a not-for-profit organization does not mean it is for loss. Did you get that? This means the mere fact that an organization is not set up to make a profit does not mean it was set up to make losses. This sentence alone made the course worthwhile for me, and I dare say this same sentence is the foundation on my perspective on this matter.
You see, whether we choose to accept it or not, profit (or cashflow, or revenue or whatever you choose to call it) is the life-giving blood of any organization. Take out profit and, I dare say, there will be no organization. Even NPOs always strive to deliver what you call a surplus budget or at worst a balanced budget. NPOs need to do this because the rules of engagement have changed. Donor scarcity and accountability demands have driven the need for business mindedness even in NPOs. Hence the sudden demand for business development executives by NPOs.
So, what exactly am I saying? Gone are the days in which you could choose to be a Mother Theresa as a businessman. Gone are the days in which your passion for the mission of your organization can supersede your quest for business profitability and a healthy company bottom line. Mission-mindedness only exists as an applaudable virtue when there is a healthy company/organization through which mission-mindedness can be showcased. Mission-mindedness cannot exist in a vacuum. To have a healthy company however, you need to be unashamed about making money; unashamed about your profit.
There is however a flip side to this coin. Organizations that choose to pursue profit at all and any cost soon find out that they begin to alienate their clientele, and begin to shipwreck their staffers. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, such organizations become cold from within, with their features becoming shrivelled, stiffened and grating. When an organization adopts the mantra that states that the “the bottom-line is the only line”, it begins to build a house of cards; a ticking time bomb heading for implosion. Simply put, today’s market place is so sensitive to the unwritten and the unspoken that mere perceptions of a brand’s disinterest in customer/staffer welfare as juxtaposed against the brand’s pursuit of profitability, is enough to turn such a brand to an anathema not to be touched by a ten-foot pole.
So, what is the way forward? How does an organization pursue passion and profit at the same time? I will say the answer is simply in the transformation of Mr Scrooge. You see as the story goes, after Ebenezer fell asleep at his desk on Christmas eve, he was visited by the ghost of his former business partner, and three other ghosts (one ghost of Christmas-past, a ghost of Christmas-present and another ghost of Christmas-to-come). Now I don’t know which of the ghosts scared him the most, but the ghost of Christmas-to-come showed him his last Christmas on earth; a Christmas in which though he was still rich, he was fragile, broken, sickly, lonely and alone (the same destination, might I say, any organization which pursues profit at any expense is headed). This prolonged nightmare was a eureka moment for dear old Ebenezer. As the story goes, he woke up after the last ghost released him and jumped out excited at the chance to right all his accumulated wrongs. His transformation was so drastic that his most oppressed employee thought he had lost his mind. Ebenezer Scrooge ended the story as a rich gentle kind-hearted businessman whom his city grew to love, cherish and respect. Everyone was eventually touched one way or the other by his generosity. And according to the story, he lived to a ripe full age.
But the question I asked at the end of it all was this: after his transformation, did Ebenezer stop his business? No. Did he stop making money? Apparently not. He started the story as a businessman and ended the story as a businessman. The only thing that changed for him was his attitude. His mindset.
So firstly, attitudes at the top of the rung must change completely and these must cascade down the hierarchy of the organization. The new attitude to be embraced must be an attitude that states that pursuing either one of profit or passion at the expense of the other must not even be a consideration at all.
Secondly, business ethics must be never be compromised; not for the sake of propriety or morality, but for the sake of brand equity that comes with solid and tested integrity.
Thirdly, customer experience has to be properly crafted through deep design thinking that feeds on customer empathy.
Fourthly, staffers of an organization that will balance both points excellently will need to be included as a top priority in the mix of things.
Lastly, organizations that will do well to balance these two seeming opposites must take social responsibility as a culture and not just as a tax management strategy. From my limited understanding of business strategy, I believe any organization that focuses its energy into these will achieve near equilibrium in its balancing act.
Organizations that refuse to balance the pursuit of profit and passion will end up in a bind. They will either bleed out till the business folds up; or they will make a lot of money, become very powerful and then implode under a strain of unethical business practices, excessive staff turnover, excessive customer attrition e.t.c.
Only organizations that learn the delicate act of balancing both pursuits will survive today’s complicated market place and live to a ripe old age like Mr Scrooge.
So, next time you find a CEO who tells you that only the bottom-line (that last line of the income statement which shows how much profit/loss was made for the year) matters, please share with him the story of Ebenezer Scrooge; maybe, just maybe, like old Eben., his organization might get a visit from the ghost of Christmas-to-come!
I rest my case…