Of all the sources I consulted for a definition of “woke,” the satirical news site The Onionseems to capture it best, in a series of incredibly funny, apocryphal quotes attributed to random politicians, celebrities and business leaders.
My favorite: “Whatever it is, we need a few hundred op-eds to nail it down.”
These days, businesses large and small are trying to reach customers, grow revenue and build a sustainable competitive advantage — all while navigating cultural fault lines. Just this month, Florida, like Texas and Kentucky, enacted a law barring the use of state funds to “promote” environmental, social and goals. Additionally, Disney, Anheuser-Busch, Maybelline and other consumer-facing companies are managing their own “anti-ESG” and “woke-related” controversies as they balance short-term profits with long-term goals.
So how can a thoughtful business leader pursue a growth strategy in these fraught times? Not easily, but as always, business planning should start with a few new insightful books.
For starters, let’s acknowledge the considerable angst driving these hot-button topics. Corporate monopolies; regulatory gaps, especially in tech; income inequality; and the rapidly evolving nature of corporate responsibility overall are important issues at the forefront of many strategic conversations. In the new book Chokepoint Capitalism, writer and tech expert Cory Doctorow and law school professor Rebecca Giblin argue that we are in a new era of “chokepoint capitalism” with companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook wielding disproportionate and exploitative influence over creators, intellectual property and much of what we read and put on our playlists each day. Their narrative of how concentrated corporate power in news, publishing, and music, in effect has “captured” American culture is compelling and their suggestions for “braking anti-competitive flywheels,” including copyright law changes, are sensible calls to action.
Indeed, an increasing number of critics say that legislative reforms are urgently needed to curb the excesses of capitalism, especially in private equity. Brendan Ballou, a federal prosecutor who served as special counsel for private equity at the Department of Justice and the author of Plunder: Private Equity’s Plan to Pillage America, lays out his case that Blackrock, Carlyle, KKR and other PE firms now have become the largest employers in the U.S. in a variety of industries, ushering in a “New Gilded Age.” He persuasively outlines how the largest PE firms’ relentless and singular profits-at-all-costs strategy has been detrimental not only to portfolio company employees and retirees but also to consumers as they pursue homeownership, nursing home care, health and property insurance, fair lending — even responsible oversight of the nation’s prison systems. Ballou’s concerns about industry consolidation, privatization of public services, political lobbying and the notorious carried interest loophole are well-reasoned and his practical and detailed proposals for systemic reform also are well worth the read.
Small wonder that concentrated economic power and profit are prompting a wholesale reassessment of the purpose and responsibility of business. Does capitalism need to be reimagined, or is “wokeness” and ESG — in the words of one Congressman last week — “just window dressing for … activism and … ideology.” Turns out, we’ve been here before, and the answer to these questions has been evolving at least since the early 19th century. In his outstanding new book, Deeply Responsible Business: A Global History of Values-Driven Business, HBS professor and business historian Geoffrey Jones challenges head-on the notion that for-profit leaders have never be virtuous while chasing the bottom line.
Jones chronicles the business lives of “deeply responsible” business leaders ranging from chocolate pioneer George Cadbury and retail visionary Edward Filene to tech innovator An Wang and activist-turned-business titan Anita Roddick. Jones doesn’t sugarcoat the personal challenges and business obstacles these leaders faced, but instead he focuses on the values that motivated them to embrace strategic goals beyond traditional income-statement metrics. This is a timely and insightful read. Across cultures and time, Jones argues, deeply responsible leaders have done three basic things: sold genuinely useful products and services, engaged stakeholders with respect and humility, and believed in the importance of community and their business’s role in it. Whatever some might call those practices in a speech or letter to shareholders, they certainly aren’t new and we need more of them now.
Overheated political rhetoric will make government reforms for today’s challenges more difficult, at least in the short term. In the meantime, corporate leaders should be thinking more broadly and strategically about the constituencies they serve and the communities they might help build. That may or not be more “woke,” but it certainly is more responsible, and we’ll all be better off.
Read in the Boston Business Journal
Authors & Innovators is an occasional column by Larry Gennari, a transactional lawyer, law professor, and chief curator of Authors & Innovators, an annual business book and ideas festival. Gennari also teaches Project Entrepreneur, a business fundamentals bootcamp for returning citizens, at BC Law School.