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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:

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.    

Audience member:

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"?

Elon Musk:

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.

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.

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?

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Shakludanto, josmndsn, a2nite

    Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

    by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 06:10:53 AM PDT

  •  CMMO is an interesting concept, however... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    a gilas girl

    the first rule of capitalism is not unlike the first rule of fight club in that the primary goal of the corporate entity is to maximize profits, while all secondary goals are also to maximize profits.

    To inject a warm heart (morality) and appreciation for the needs of society into corporate activity you no longer have capitalism, but socialism.

    *Austerity is the opposite of Prosperity*

    by josmndsn on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 06:59:08 AM PDT

    •  I disagree. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      josmndsn

      Capitalism does not inherently require idolization of profit, just the use of profit as a means to an end.  Which is why the best economies are mixed rather than "pure" attempts at either social or corporate states.

      Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

      by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:42:22 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  How can you justify the statement that... (0+ / 0-)

        "Capitalism does not inherently require idolization of profit"?

        I see it as an assumption without foundation.

        *Austerity is the opposite of Prosperity*

        by josmndsn on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 09:32:44 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  It's not an assumption. (0+ / 0-)

          It's a rejection of your categorical statement to the contrary.  SpaceX and Tesla Motors could not exist if you were correct.  There are vastly more profitable areas the money put into those ventures could have gone into instead.

          Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

          by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 10:56:14 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  How can you justify the statement that ... (0+ / 0-)

        "Capitalism does not inherently require idolization of profit"?

        I see it as an assumption without foundation, based on my business education and many years of observations and participation in the business community.

        If the economic system is not about maximizing profits, it is not capitalism but some other form of economic system where ownership of the basic means of production may be in part owned by the government, where profits are redistributed to the needs of the society.

        Sweden, where the government owns a small share of its basic means of production, but thrives along side capitalism, is what I believe you may mean by a "mixed" economy.

        Because this country is a "mix" of economic systems, where "pure" capitalism is not tolerated, most Americans characterize Sweden as a Socialist economy.

        So, if Capitalists don't idolize profit, what is their purpose of existence??

        *Austerity is the opposite of Prosperity*

        by josmndsn on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 09:57:20 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Do you idolize oxygen because you breathe it? (0+ / 0-)

          Does your dependence on it for survival cause you to want to breath pure O2 and damage your lungs in the process?  No?  Then dependence on profit for business survival does not require that profit be treated as the be-all, end-all of existence.

          Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

          by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 10:58:02 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  For sure, I can't do without it! ;) nt (0+ / 0-)

            *Austerity is the opposite of Prosperity*

            by josmndsn on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 01:26:57 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Once again, do you go around (0+ / 0-)

              trying to stealing medical patients' oxygen bottles?  Do you try to accumulate oxygen as much as possible?  Does it dominate your thoughts and decisions?  Of course not.  It's just a means to live.  So stop acting like depending on something for survival means you can't care about anything else.

              Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

              by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 01:48:11 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  a lot of corporations (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Words In Action, Troubadour

    already have VPs for community relations or some sort of thing wherein pro bono work, being a good community citizen, for profit-non-profit partnerships, and charitable donations/programs are overseen.  

    Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. --Elie Wiesel

    by a gilas girl on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:11:14 AM PDT

    •  Ad hoc positions, mostly. (0+ / 0-)

      There's no standard function the way there is with, say, CFOs.  Most of what a "community relations" VP does is just PR, and of course a VP doesn't have the same stature or authority as a Chief Executive.

      Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

      by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:44:06 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  No, not to my knowledge. (0+ / 0-)

        At least not in larger organizations.

        The "social enterprise" function is typically a standing function led by someone who is the chief internal and external contact for various community service endeavors.

        Frankly, I'd rather take down Exxon or Goldman Sachs, the way we're taking down RushBeckistan, than elect another "better" Democrat who's going to wind up singing for the bankster choir.

        by Words In Action on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:49:21 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  That's a key difference with the CMMO concept. (0+ / 0-)

          What you're describing is a liaison - someone who smooths relations between two parties.  So basically, the corporation is just a serial killer with a publicist.  A CMMO would be involved in the actual business decisions, not merely being a conduit of public opinion to the decision-makers.  That's I compared it more to a judicial branch of government rather than a marketing position.

          Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

          by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 08:00:22 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  I don't think that Corporations... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    josmndsn, a2nite, Visceral

    ...are capable of being moral. We designed them to chase profits only. It's written into their structure, and even into the laws governing their behavior.

    Who will pay the salary for a Morality Officer? It will come from the shareholders/directors...the very people whose profit he'll be expected to restrain.

    For better or worse, our economy is committed to an adversarial system, similar to our court system. The only effective checks on corporate power come from organized labor, customers, competitors, and government.

    •  It would have to begin with privately-held (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Words In Action

      corporations, and only through social pressure percolate into the publicly-held business sphere.

      Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

      by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:45:01 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  That's a good point. (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Troubadour

        I agree with it having to be a private company. The pressure of shareholders and a for-profit board of public companies would be too much.

        Frankly, I'd rather take down Exxon or Goldman Sachs, the way we're taking down RushBeckistan, than elect another "better" Democrat who's going to wind up singing for the bankster choir.

        by Words In Action on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:50:54 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Also, if it begins with private companies (0+ / 0-)

          it would eventually end up in the public sphere because some of those companies would go public.  The CMMO position could be written into the fundamental structure of the business and explained in a regularized way that investors and regulators could understand.  That's what would differentiate it from an ad hoc position that can be easily thrown away once a company goes public.

          Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

          by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 08:02:27 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Once they go public (0+ / 0-)

            they can easily lose their ability to maintain anything but the for-profit motive, since their are fiduciary responsibilities involved. You would first have to legislatively re-write those fiduciary responsibilities, I believe; that may be as "simple" as having a different classification for "socially responsibly" enterprises, which would be distinct from corporations currently identified as being "socially responsible," but would allow those thus distinguished to go the last mile or come clean.

            Frankly, I'd rather take down Exxon or Goldman Sachs, the way we're taking down RushBeckistan, than elect another "better" Democrat who's going to wind up singing for the bankster choir.

            by Words In Action on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 08:07:55 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Fudiciary responsibility is still met (0+ / 0-)

              as long as a company is up front about the purpose of its existence.  I don't think there would be grounds for official reprisal if a company went public stating explicitly in its filing that profit is not maximized, but rather used exclusively to serve a given purpose.  Investors have every right to invest in a company for reasons other than pure profit motive, and if any are motivated by pure profit, then they simply shouldn't invest in that company.

              Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

              by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 08:14:26 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  Unfortunately, not (0+ / 0-)

                I used to work for a company whose mission was to serve the greater Boston area with classical music on the radio. It was a privately held, but a commercial for-profit company, and before its principal owner died, he set up a trust to hold his stock and among the conditions he laid out were that the Boston radio station could never be sold except under financial duress, and that it must continue to play classical music for the next hundred years.

                After he died, President Clinton and Newt Gingrich enacted the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996, which almost completely deregulated radio station ownership and set off a frenzy of speculation in brodcasting licenses. Stations in markets of comparable size to Boston began to sell for tens of millions of dollars.  Meanwhile, some of the minority stockholders died, ad their heirs were not particularly passionate about classical music or radio. One of them eventually threatened to sue the board of trustees, taking advantage of provisions in state law that guarantee the rights of minority stockholders. This person demanded an immense amount of money from a company that was moderately profitable, but whose Boston radio station's license was now worth twenty times the station's gross annual revenue and perhaps eight or nine times the value of all the other assets it owned.

                And so, a mere fifteen years after the owner's death, the station was sold for a hundred million dollars to a major broadcasting chain which promptly flipped it to country music. The rest of the Company's assets went to other buyers, and it's now out of business.

                The only way a for-profit company stays on a socially responsible path is for it to have a single owner who wishes it so. When he or she dies, that's the end.

                Corporations are not people, Citizens' United notwithstanding; they are merely a means to profit, and when they cease to be so they are slaughtered like pigs.

                •  If the company chose not to fight that asshole (0+ / 0-)

                  then that's their fault.  He didn't have a leg to stand on.  If he didn't like what the company was doing, he could put the matter to the other investors and try to change things, or he could sell his stake.

                  Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

                  by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 10:22:14 AM PDT

                  [ Parent ]

  •  This approach would just (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Words In Action

    be the equivalent of a very thin sheet of paper over a very wide crack.

  •  I have an idea. Issue ratings. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Words In Action, Troubadour

    We can't trust the CMO because he's a corporate employee. He eats their bread and (sooner or later) he will do their will.

    What we need is an outside rating agency, similar to Dun & Bradstreet or S&P that issues "Morality Ratings". They would range from AAA to "junk".

    The ratings would be data-driven and they would require extensive knowledge of each company to compile.

    They would serve three purposes:

    1) The ratings would help customers, suppliers, employees, and investors determine whether or not to do business with a particular firm.

    2) Companies may change their behavior to get a better rating.

    3) The activists who compile the ratings would be forced to become more familiar with how corporations work. It would require a level of familiarity on a par with a sell-side analyst to give a credible rating.

    •  There used to be such a thing, sort of. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Troubadour

      I believe it was called a "blue" ranking or indicator or some such thing.

      (Sorry for the vast vagueness, but I am too lazy to try and dig and clear it up right now. :).

      As I recall, however, it fell into disrepair.

      Frankly, I'd rather take down Exxon or Goldman Sachs, the way we're taking down RushBeckistan, than elect another "better" Democrat who's going to wind up singing for the bankster choir.

      by Words In Action on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:43:32 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Absolutely. We can do all of the above. (0+ / 0-)

      Data-driven, transparent ratings standards are a superb way to do a lot of things, including rating news/information sources, rating the morality of a company, rating its commitment to a particular mission, etc.

      Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

      by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:48:17 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  ratings agencies are corrupt (0+ / 0-)

      If these morality raters do as well as Moody's, S&P, etc., they'll issue their ratings and no-one will pay any attention to them, because the money men know a good investment when they see it.

      •  Hence transparent standards. (0+ / 0-)

        Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

        by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 10:59:24 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  transparency isn't the problem, it's relevance (0+ / 0-)

          Investors don't care about being responsible or progressive.  They want moneymoneymoneynownownow and they'll invest in whatever corp they think will get them that, regardless of its morality rating.

          Two ratings agencies downgraded US sovereign debt - something that's supposed to be a morality rating of its own - but yields on our bonds have only been lower at the very bottom of the crash (low yields mean strong demand).  It doesn't matter to investors who know that the US is still the best investment in the world regardless of what the ratings agencies say or even what they measure.

  •  Well said and I say this as someone who spent (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Troubadour

    fifteen years as a corporate executive in a couple of start-ups with revenues from just about zero up to about $70 million. I then bought a small start-up, grew it and sold it. And I did a start-up of my own.

    I say "well said" because you anticipated and answered the initial questions that immediately popped into my head.

    There are, of course, rare companies which do operate with a sense of mission and a philosophy that is not solely profit-driven. In every case of which I know, however, that is the result of a founder/owner who had that mindset and then proceeded to grow the company by adding people who could embrace it, either as leaders or followers.

    Of course even these organizations care about profitability, first and foremost as a matter of profitability. If they succeed, it is often at least in part due to the good will they engender with employees, vendors, customers and other business partners and acquaintances. In the right hands, doing good can be profitable.

    Because of the seductiveness of the for-profit motive, and the strong differences between those who get off on it versus those who embrace "meaning," shall we say, I question whether or not it is possible to graft a mission and morality mindset onto a profit-driven mindset. I would think that this person's message would be constantly undermined since s/he would be outnumbered and, perhaps most importantly, report to a CEO (and board) of profit-driven animals. This is not to say, however, that they would not have any successes.

    Having said that, various Safety and Quality regime models have been developed and implemented over the decades, and at times the right program in the right place with the right people have worked well. And in most cases these are championed by an evangelist who must win over (and keep winning over) his peers, his boss and even the board.

    In conclusion, I would say such organizations are much more likely if the person at the very top (CEO or, in a public company, Chairman & CEO) has the mindset him/herself.

    Now, the other approach, with which I do not have experience, is the co-op or other form of employee-owned business. In these cases, there would not really be such an opportunity, since authority is equally shared. Nevertheless, in these situations, I guarantee opinion-leaders start the thing and/or will emerge. If these opinion leaders have the mindset, presumably that would work to overcome the alternative, which would be employees who are only there to generate paychecks.

    The best approach, IMHO, is a Mixed Economy which recognizes the shortcomings of the profit-first, second and third model, the problems it visits upon society and individuals. This would then inform regulations and regulatory enforcement that would encourage and require businesses to address the general welfare in exchange for government (taxpayer) support. This way, no business can gain advantage through exploitation. They would be required to provide living wages and benefits, for example, and would neuter, for example,  tactics such as cutting hours to avoid benefits. As long as all businesses are operating on the same playing field, then non-exploitative working conditions can be upheld. The same is true for full employment driven by government policy.

    Protection from globalization can be had through robust trade policy that indexes all nations on their labor and environmental standards, which drives a tariff schedule that eliminates "advantages" of exploitation. This policy would have be embraced by the superpower, its key allies and the U.N.

    Frankly, I'd rather take down Exxon or Goldman Sachs, the way we're taking down RushBeckistan, than elect another "better" Democrat who's going to wind up singing for the bankster choir.

    by Words In Action on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:40:18 AM PDT

    •  Ooops. (0+ / 0-)

      Not:
      Of course even these organizations care about profitability, first and foremost as a matter of profitability.

      But:
      Of course even these organizations care about profitability, first and foremost as a matter of survivability.

      Frankly, I'd rather take down Exxon or Goldman Sachs, the way we're taking down RushBeckistan, than elect another "better" Democrat who's going to wind up singing for the bankster choir.

      by Words In Action on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:53:15 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Thanks, these are important observations. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Words In Action

      The most effective place where a CMMO would be useful in the beginning is as a role that a visionary founder could play in a business while offloading the profit-motive decisions on to a CEO, and perhaps keeping veto power for themselves.  Rather than just being an ad hoc position, it's something that could be articulated with standards for future entrepreneurs to utilize in a regular way that can be sold to investors and incorporated into normal governance.

      Right now plenty of businesses try to sell themselves as responsible and visionary, but it's all ad hoc, nebulous.  Perhaps some visionary leaders could get together and establish some standards for a CMMO kind of executive officer.  It seems like a good subject for a TED talk.

      Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

      by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:56:16 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  One distinction. (0+ / 0-)

      Re: coops/employee-owned businesses -

      "If these opinion leaders have the mindset, presumably that would work to overcome the alternative, which would be employees who are only there to generate paychecks."

      What I should have said:

      "employees who are there to generate paychecks to support alternative, non-capitalistic/materialistic lifestyles."

      Frankly, I'd rather take down Exxon or Goldman Sachs, the way we're taking down RushBeckistan, than elect another "better" Democrat who's going to wind up singing for the bankster choir.

      by Words In Action on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:56:54 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  assuming corps have any mission beyond profit (0+ / 0-)

    I always assumed corporate "core values" and "mission statements" were BS: empty rhetoric meant to make the drones feel that they're anything other than interchangeable and disposable drones.  The only thing the average corporation is interested in is profit; the stockholders want their checks, the CEO wants his multi-million dollar yearly salary, and to the extent that values and long-term goals interfere with that, they're bad.

    •  You're describing a circumstance (0+ / 0-)

      not a fundamental rule of business.

      Ever get the feeling you've been sold a monorail?

      by Troubadour on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 11:00:15 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  If the described circumstance is ubiquitous ... (0+ / 0-)

        within the corporate business community it would appear to be something very close to a rule. A standard operating procedure.

        *Austerity is the opposite of Prosperity*

        by josmndsn on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 01:23:31 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

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