Gurnek Bains on meaning.


Gurnek Bains is a founder and CEO of YSC, a corporate psychology consultancy with offices throughout the world. He is also one of the authors of Meaning Inc. (Profile Books). Bains talked to Stuart Crainer about the new book and the meaning of meaning.

What is the big challenge facing business you identify in Meaning Inc.?

The first enemy is cynicism. A survey by Public Agenda put business leaders second from bottom, just above politicians but below journalists, in terms of public regard. Only 20 per cent of the population trusted them. Business leaders languish at the bottom of the list in many similar surveys.

Barely a day goes by without some kind of scandal over the amounts of compensation received by a top leader. Films like "The Corporation" talk about the pathology of modern business. In the eyes of many, corporations are empty legal shells intent on maximising shareholder value more interested in the latest management fad than in improving the lives of those who work for them or in making a positive impact on society.

But that is the media commenting on business. Is that the reality as well?

You're right. So, to test this out, over the past ten years, we have interviewed over 20,000 senior and middle executives in the UK and other parts of Europe, the US, and Asia-Pacific countries. We talked to people about their personal values, their career histories, what they feel about their work, what energises them, what frustrates them and what they want to see and do going forward.

And this provided more optimism?

I think yes and no. Internally, the world of organisations is also bedevilled by cynicism. After all, the biggest selling business book of all time is Dilbert. But that is only part of what we found. The good news is that, underneath all the negativity and cynicism, there is something more positive going on the rise of what we call the Meaning Inc. company.

Our research found that business leaders are not universally avaricious machines solely intent on lining their pockets or blindly driving shareholder value. The vast majority like their employees want to feel good about what they are doing. The most forward-looking are creating organisations that are invigorating and meaningful for employees, customers and other stakeholders.

What's more, these leaders are not just being nice for the sake of it. Most are also discovering it works and helps them achieve results.

And the meaning of meaning?

A sense of meaning that is real as opposed to going through the motions of creating statements of purpose and values or launching worthy initiatives. Genuinely listening to what people want and responding to it authentically. That's what we understand by "creating meaning".

What does it take to be a Meaning Inc. company?

These are companies whose success is founded on creating meaning for their employees, as well as for their customers and other stakeholders. Typically, this is what characterises these companies:

First, they have an invigorating sense of purpose that goes beyond business success and which makes people feel they are changing society as opposed to just servicing needs. Second, they have the courage to set extremely stretching goals and to be ground-breaking in the pursuit of the core purpose.

Third, they have an innovative approach to benefits and the treatment of people which makes them feel special. They also have a culture that allows people to be themselves and to feel they are personally making a difference and utilising their distinct talents. They have a rigorous, at times almost aggressive, approach to evaluating performance and contribution. They have clear and authentically grounded values which are lived through thick and thin and a concern for the wider and, particularly, the environmental and societal impact of business activities.

And through all this, they have an excellent reputation with consumers and other political and social stakeholders.

Finally, they combine excellent long-term performance with a preparedness to sacrifice short-term gains if their achievement conflicts with the core purpose and values.

This list cannot apply to many organisations.

We were surprised how many top performing companies had many if not all of these attributes. More and more of the world's most successful companies show, or are trying to develop, these Meaning Inc. characteristics.

Are these in particular industries?

No, it's not industry specific. The companies we looked at include Genentech, Starbucks, BP and Goldman Sachs.

Surely Goldman Sachs has a mercenary short-term culture?

If you believe everything you have seen in films featuring Wall Street and investment bankers! Actually the reality is rather different. We were as surprised as anyone when we were told that Goldman Sachs was actually 26th in Fortune's Best Companies to Work For rankings and the only investment bank on the list.

So we talked to people at Goldman Sachs and the first thing that surprised us was the restrained, almost cerebral tone of the bank, in an industry where flamboyance and ego tend to flourish, and hefty payments to employees are routine. At Goldman Sachs, however, insiders describe a culture of teamwork, where excessive individualism is frowned upon.

The story of a young talented manager who wrote his first memo and was told by a senior leader "This is fantastic, but can you change every I into a we" is illustrative of this sentiment, as is Goldman Sach's unusual tendency towards having co- or tri- heads of many of its business areas.

And this sort of behaviour is catching on?

Our research suggests that it is. Look around and you will see that Meaning Inc. themes are evident in a range of companies across all sectors of the economy, including Southwest Airlines, Gap, Virgin, GORE-TEX (W. L. Gore) and Orange.

These companies show a desire for authentic purpose, positive impact and focus on employee well-being, coupled with strong business success. In Silicon Valley, in particular, a range of companies, such as Apple and Google, are pioneering ways of operating that will eventually seep into other business areas, just as the early methods at Ford became the model for businesses everywhere in the last century.

An even greater range of companies in our consulting experience are aspiring to these attributes and recognise the importance to their future of embracing them. Companies like RBS, Diageo, AOL, Tesco, Cadbury Schweppes, Whitbread, Sainsbury's, ALJ and many more in our experience are working hard to embed Meaning Inc. attributes.

But none of this is foolproof. Your attributes are not a recipe for success?

There is no single recipe for success. Indeed, believing in this mythical recipe has been a recurring problem for decades. But what we can say is that the relationship between these attributes and success is not coincidental.

Of course, Meaning Inc. companies are not perfect in every respect nor, indeed, are they necessarily virtuous. Many, for example, may have embraced certain principles simply because they drive long-term business success. All could be criticised in a number of areas. BP, despite its "Beyond Petroleum" advocacy, is still an oil company, and one that has experienced problems. Starbucks minimises any sense of local culture with its corporate imprint.

Many have also been forced to lay off workers routinely at different points in their history and to make difficult decisions to satisfy the financial markets. However, all have thought deeply about why they exist, what they do, how they project themselves and how they treat their people. Such fundamental questioning lies at the root of Meaning Inc.


About The Author

Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer
Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer

Des Dearlove is a long-term contributor and columnist for The Times and a contributing editor to Strategy+Business. Stuart Crainer is a contributing editor to Strategy+Business and executive editor of Business Strategy Review.