Can Businesses be Beautiful and Profitable?

The lens of beauty enables more thoughtful design. It inspires the crafting of more meaningful products and services. It creates a resilient business, with a more committed workforce. Beautiful leadership brings out the very best in people so they feel inspired to do their best work. Beauty is not a soft option, it takes hard work and commitment. But as I illustrate in my CEO guide, it can produce real returns for those who are willing to invest.

The business case for purpose

A purpose driven company

Brunello Cucinelli has been making clothes very successfully since 1978. Cucinelli pays his staff more than the average wage for their jobs, insists they work no longer than eight-and-a-half hours a day, and spends around 20% of his profits on what he calls “the gift”.

He also runs an oversubscribed craft school, where students learn tailoring, stonemasonry and embroidery, among other disciplines. His listed company grows at 10% every year. Cucinelli has developed a business philosophy that draws on Renaissance humanism, Senecan stoicism, Benedictine rigor, and the theories of Theodore Levitt, a 20th Century marketing scholar who argued that the purpose of companies is to keep and serve customers. Cucinelli says “I would like to make a profit using ethics, dignity, and morals. I don’t know if I’ll be able to, but I’m trying. Of course, I believe in a form of capitalism. I would just like it to be slightly more human.”

The business case for collaborative leadership

We all know the company Pixar — they make animated movies. Pixar are an extremely successful company making great films, not only because they are masterpieces in animation but because they tell compelling stories.

But this is not easy. After the runaway success of Toy Story, Ed Catmull and his team agreed there had to be a way of openly and tenderly holding a creative idea so that it could evolve to its true potential of excellence every time. To do this it required the idea to be open to close scrutiny in every aspect of its script, design and production. It was for this reason that the Braintrust was created.

In a large room, members of Pixar regularly come together to openly test the development of a film. The rules are: only constructive criticism, and to speak with candour. It requires great trust to do this, to speak plainly and honestly and for the director to listen to all feedback. Without trust there can be no creative collaboration.

The focus is on solving a problem. Individual knowledge becomes a collective intelligence, highly valuable in examining how one gets from mediocre to world class. Catmull believes every movie they start with sucks in the beginning. In his words, meetings are filled with ‘frank talk, spirited debate, laughter and love’; they are there to excavate the truth in a movie.

The other rule is that the director is never instructed to do something. The director listens and develops his or her own interpretation and understanding of feedback given.

It is unusual for a creative company, or any company, to work so rigorously in an open, collaborative environment. It takes patience and time – something Pixar are willing to give. To create enduring beauty requires intense collaboration between people who share the purpose of creating something truly unique. Anyone, therefore, no matter in which industry they work, can create their own Braintrust. It might just get you from mediocre to great. Don’t move fast and break things, move slow and build them – so that they are meaningful, valuable and useful.

Muhammad Ali’s best poem

Muhammad Ali was once asked what his shortest poem was. He replied in two words: ‘Me, We’. In these two short words Ali gave insight into our true human nature. We need to be truly ourselves as individuals, but we can only be so when connected to a greater ‘We’. The Me needs the We to create more than is possible as an individual; and the We needs Me – every Me – to come with their full capacity to create meaning collectively. ‘We’ is how we create narrative, culture, context and meaning – it’s the glue that binds us. Strip a business of the means to create We, and we all suffer as a result.

Collaborative cultures have released the creative potential at Pixar. They are the root of how humanity gets things done at scale. For whatever reason this seems to be misunderstood – St Exupéry once said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t give out orders and tell people exactly what to do, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea”

It is the soft skills of a leader, of listening openly, making time, helping, being honest, and creating moments of opportunity where the individual and collective heart, hand, and mind can begin to build the new. And it just may be they are better at it collectively than you. Allowing people to arrive at their own conclusions of what needs to be done, and embracing what they create, is another form of wise leadership.

Cultural leadership as conviviality

Olafur Eliasson — is an artist, known for his extraordinary work with light. ‘The Weather Project’ at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, perhaps one of his best known works that attracted over 2 million vistors. His New York Waterfalls Installation cost $15.5million. Olafur has a studio in Berlin where he employs a staff of 90. Everyday, his staff sit down to eat freshly cooked vegetarian food. The kitchen is at the heart of the studio. The daily communal lunch, Olafur believes, is about showing respect and hospitality to his staff. It is all about dignity. “Cooking,” says Olafur, is caring for others, it is a gesture of generosity and hospitality that functions as a social glue; it amplifies social relations and translates thoughts into food, into giving and sharing”. Don’t be fooled. Contemporary art is a very serious business. Caring for others — that is I believe the important learning here. Eliasson may only have 90 staff, but each and everyone is significant and important, the interplay of conversations generating ideas with a diverse team leads to new ideas, reinforces a sense of community, purpose and love for the work you do. Now this may not be quantified, but show me an unmotivated team and I will show you a paucity of ideas and endeavor. A broken business and business model even if management don’t know it yet.

Legacy as leadership

Interface was founded by Ray C. Anderson and incorporated as a company in 1973. It invented the concept of tessellating carpet tiles meeting the need of an economy that fell in love with Big. Big economy, Big companies, Big offices, Big financial returns. Think Dallas South Fork. In 1978 Interface sales had reached $11 million. The company went public in 1983. It is now a Fortune 100 company with a market cap of $1.53bn

Interface was not a good friend to the environment – extraction of natural resources the processes of manufacturing contributing to CO2, and pollution and the inability to recycle where everything ended up in landfill. Ray decided things had to change, he went to his institutional investors, and shared his vision of a company that would be fully sustainable by 2020 — the response, ‘great, but can it make money?’ Ray initiated the progamme and then sadly died, however, his vision and purpose thrived. What a legacy.

Today I am sitting with Geanne van Arkel – Head of Sustainable Development EMEA in Amsterdam and we are speaking about the fact that Interface no longer sees itself as a company that wishes to be sustainable, but one that uses the words ‘regenerative’ and ‘restorative’ as a business. Geanne explains the net-works program which enables fishing communities in developing countries to give discarded fishing nets a second life by selling them back into the global supply chain, providing a continuous source of recycled materials for use in carpet tile production. Local residents have so far collected more than 125 tons of discarded fishing nets that would otherwise damage the oceans. Interface is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of carpet tiles. The Net-Works project is supported by Interface. Their goal is to source 100% recycled materials for its carpet tiles by 2020.

I asked Geanne if all businesses can be ethical, environmentally friendly — even scaling to become loved by the markets? Her response, “Yes. We have no choice.”

In fact Interface is more relevant today than it ever was, as waste to value, circular economy and upcycling are becoming the norm.“Its time for business to step up”, says Rod Drury CEO and founder of the accountancy software platform Xero, valued at £1.4bn. Rod believes as a leader it’s important to create a legacy, to leave this place better than we found it. Whilst Falcon Coffee CEO Konrad Britts describes people coming to Falcon’s Headquarters in Lewes, Sussex wanting to work not for the paycheck — but because of its purpose. Which is ensuring the 15m people that grow the entire worlds growing insatiable thirst for coffee, have ample reward for their labour whilst creating a resilient supply chain. Last year, they spent $138 million dollars buying coffee from rural farming communities in some of the poorest economies in the world. Like Rod, and Geanne, Konrad wants to ‘give back’.

This is authentic leadership grounded in values. Business leaders should never forget that human beings work for meaning, to believe that their work is purposeful, and worthwhile. Fiona Reynolds Director General of The National Trust, now Master at Emmanuel, believes that the loss of values in business and politics has created the existential crisis in which we currently exist. We need leaders with values. Peter Childs Head of The Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial College London is of the view we need to educate engineers, makers, business leaders to become more ‘beautiful’ in their thinking. Conceiving of ways to enhance our humanity, environment and economy.

As Cucinelli so elegantly demonstrates that the pursuit of the bottom line at all costs may not be so enduring or successful as some lead us to believe. Purpose is the point, profit is the result.

All these examples of leadership inspire me. All these leaders care deeply about people, and the world we live in. It simply cannot be that you believe you can lead anyone, if you don’t. These leaders are not effete, but serious men and women who believe that beautiful things are made with love, and, infused with optimism, say that life is, and can be worthwhile.

They believe business is the answer, they also believe businesses should be profitable in the truest sense of the word.

First published in HR Director Magazine

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Beautiful Business helps people, teams and corporations deliver authentic, profitable restorative businesses through our Beautiful Leaders & Makers Programmes, and mentoring. For more information on how we can help you

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