A fascinating talk between SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Khan Academy founder Sal Khan got me thinking about what corporations could do to be both more mission-oriented (on behalf of a mission other than profit, while still remaining profitable) and more responsible to society. My idea: A Chief Mission/Morality Officer (CMMO).
The part of the discussion that got me thinking along these lines was actually a very brief digression (the whole conversation is about 50 minutes long):
Elon Musk:The last paragraph above is what got me really thinking about this subject, because if even Elon Musk - the paragon of "Big Picture" thinking - is only able to spend a tiny fraction of his time worrying about keeping his companies on the path of doing what he created them to do rather than profit-related issues to keep them alive, that right there is perhaps a profound insight into why business in general ends up behaving problematically. People without his talents who run companies, regardless of the size, won't be able to spend any time worrying about the Big Picture: Day in, day out, it would just be profit, profit, profit to keep the thing going.
Particularly if you're the CEO of the company, you actually have a distillation of all the worst problems in the company. There's no point in spending your time on things that are going right, so you're only spending your time on things that are going wrong. And there are things that are going wrong that other people can't take care of, so you have the worst - you have like a filter for the crappest problems in the company. The most pernicious and painful problems. I think you have to feel quite compelled to do it, and have a fairly high pain threshold.
There's a friend of mine who says that starting a company is like staring into the abyss and eating glass. And there's some truth to that. The "staring into the abyss" part is that you're gonna be constantly facing the extermination of the company. 'Cuz most startups fail. It's like 90% or 99% of startups fail. So that's the "staring into the abyss" part. You're constantly saying, "Okay, if I don't get this right, the company will die." So it can be quite stressful.
And then the "eating glass" part is that you've gotta do the problems that the company needs you to work on, not the problems you want to work on. So you end up working on problems that you really wish you weren't working on. So that's the "eating glass" part. And that goes on for a long time.
So how do you keep your focus on the Big Picture when you're constantly faced with "We could be out of business in a month"?
Well, it's just a very small percentage of mental energy is on the Big Picture. Like, you know where you're generally heading for, and the actual path is going to be some zig-zaggy thing in that direction. You try not to deviate too far from the path that you want to be on, but you're gonna have to do that to some degree.
That creates constant pressure to screw over employees and consumers, to pollute, to skirt or outright break laws, and to lobby and corrupt governments on every level, and it only gets worse the larger the organization becomes and the farther-removed executive decision making is from the human consequences of its actions. Large corporations in particular have already recognized the need for specialization at the executive level with CFOs managing the finances, CTOs guiding technology development, CMOs (Chief Marketing Officers) keeping an eye on the company's public image, and CEOs managing the management and making the highest-level decisions. But every single one of these positions has as their absolute and only guiding star the maximum profitability of the company.
So along the lines of the earlier discussion I posted about corporate governance and vision, Replacing FOR-Profit with BY-Profit, why not have companies that want to be non-nihilistic have an executive-level officer in charge of keeping an eye on the company's overall progress toward a mission other than profit and/or its general morality and responsibility to the public? A CMO only cares about manipulating the appearance of these things, and that's fine for a nihilistic criminal enterprise that is 100% only about profit, but what about a business that wants to be better than that? Even with that desire, it's very difficult for someone whose job demands constant focus on profit to be concerned about anything else. So why not hire someone with real authority whose job it is to handle that?
Not everyone at the top of a business is a sociopath who sneers at morality or mission-oriented endeavors, and very few people are talented enough to wear multiple executive hats like Elon Musk does and succeed at all of them, so the problem is one of specialization. Clearly for most companies there needs to be a specific, executive-level position for people to guide a company's morality and BY-profit mission, the CMMO. Obviously if a company is rotten to the core, then a CMMO wouldn't be able to change that - the CEO would just hire some milquetoast puppet who is little more than a tool of the CMO, and the reality of their insincerity would become apparent. But companies that are serious about it might greatly benefit from specializing that aspect of decision-making, creating a full-time position where a talented person with experience in business can spend all their time thinking about the company's mission and its moral responsibilities.
A business that was truly serious about it could even give a CMMO some sort of rigorous veto power over top-level decisions, making the position like a sort of "Judicial Branch" of the company: Rather than interpreting a Constitution, they interpret the company's mission and keep it focused on using profit toward the objectives of its foundation rather than allowing it to become an end in itself. For the first time ever, academic experts in Business Ethics could have a direct pipeline to authority in business, and really start to impact the state of corporate governance. CMMOs who were corrupt or weak would develop a reputation that would negatively impact their companies, and companies that fired strong ones for taking a stand would look very, very bad.
If enough new businesses were started with a CMMO, and if some of them succeeded, the practice could percolate into the wider business community and exert pressure on more established institutions. Ultimately people might start to ask why a given business has failed to create such a position. Perhaps in initial years it could be largely advisory for established companies, letting a company know about the mission and moral implications of every profit-driven decision. But if it proves beneficial - which it would, because responsible behavior is a lot more sustainable even for an individual company over the long-term than having no self-control - you could see pressure to give the position more authority.
Anyway, just an idea. Below is the approximately 50-minute talk that led to this line of thinking in its entirety - I highly recommend it, but it's not necessary to understand this concept since it only came from a brief part of the conversation, so feel free to skip it or leave it for later. It's mostly about Musk's businesses, and only concerns this topic in the quoted portion - still highly worthwhile:
6:15 AM PT: Additional thought: Think of a CMMO as both the conscience and the vision of the company. Human beings evolved consciences without going extinct, so why can't corporations evolve them without going bankrupt?