The Heart of the CEO

Fred Keller's picture
July 21, 2017 -- Fred Keller

Chutzpah and Humility

From stories revolving around the likes of Enron’s Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling and Bernie Madoff’s giant Ponzi scheme and narratives about “The Greed of Wall Street,” many believe that “CEO” is just another four-letter word!  Truth be told, there are more than a few unscrupulous CEOs who use their power and wealth to do things that if not illegal, are at least arguably immoral.

Yet there are abundant stories about CEOs doing wonderful work beyond the creation of a successful business.  Take Yvon Chouinard for instance, the founder along with his wife Malinda, of Patagonia, Inc.  Chouinard has the wealth to do virtually anything.  Yet he’s chosen to take aim at preserving the incredible beauty of the outdoors.  The company, named after the awe-inspiring region in Chile/Argentina, was founded to provide durable clothing for climbers.  At the time, Chouinard was already noted in the small climbing world for the quality of his mountain climbing hardware and for a major business risk he’d undertaken.  Well known for making great hand-forged pitons – those iron spikes climbers pound into rocks to hold their ropes during climbing — he discovered that the constant placement and removal of pitons he made were harming the rock.  So he developed a less harmful alternative, refusing to make and sell the mainstream product, thereby singlehandedly changing the way climbing was done by educating customers how to make the change.

Chouinard has remained humble and yet laser-focused on using his business as a source for good work.   He could have sold his company to the highest bidder years ago, but has instead insisted Patagonia remain privately owned, and he’s changed the bylaws to ensure the business will always be considering not only its shareholders, but all the other constituencies his business touches.  He did this by becoming a B-Corp.  His wife Malinda has dedicated her life to seeing that employees thrive in an environment where they’re happy, healthy and contributing at the highest levels, and that includes providing day care at the company’s California headquarters.  And Patagonia contributes one percent of sales– not profits, but sales —  to environmental preservation causes every year.  And the list goes on, like changing the entire cotton supply chain to organic after learning of the toxicity required to grow and process standard cotton.

Is Yvon Chouinard an outlier?  Yes and no.  He certainly is extraordinary, but he is not alone.  The stories of CEOs who have built businesses based on doing good work are many.  Another example is that of Sam Polk.  I first got to know Sam through an email exchange after he wrote a provocative op-ed piece in The New York Times about how he was “addicted to money.”  He’d become angry after his $3.6 million bonus wasn’t enough.  After a period of introspection, he realized he had gone over the edge, so he quit his high-paying Wall Street job and returned to LA to open a non-profit called Groceryships which teaches low-income mothers how to prepare and cook healthy meals for their families.  To his surprise, it was the camaraderie established in the wake of honest conversations about the profound difficulties of being trapped in poverty that was most meaningful to the moms.  Oh sure, they loved learning about the many ways to prepare tasty vegetables, but they really wanted to know that they weren’t alone in their quest to do better for their families.  The non-profit thrived, yet he was not content with the limited impact he could make as a non-profit.

So ever the entrepreneur, Polk devised a new plan, this time to prepare healthy fast food in a central kitchen and deliver it to multiple “grab and go” points around the city. Here’s the catch: he charges $4 per meal in low-income parts of LA and $8  in  upscale areas.  Both are thriving. He calls it Everytable. Kind of flies in the face of capitalism as we know it.  But he is determined to use his business skills to solve a social problem!

What does it take for capitalism to be used as a tool to advance humankind?  My experience is that it is a choice. Business leaders have the skills and the desire to do good things with their businesses.  But the current mainstream narrative promotes financial success over impacting society in ways that truly solve social and environmental problems. In this new world of making a difference with your business, it takes chutzpah to stand strong against the current narrative.  And it takes humility to explore unknown areas, including new ground defined by using your life to make a real difference in the futures of others.  Those kinds of leaders are out there.  Find them, support them.  It takes not only these kinds of inspired leaders, but also progressive thinkers who want to invest in this kind of work, and customers willing to buy from businesses going against the grain.

Yes, being in business is exciting, rewarding and complicated.  But it can offer even more value for those willing to consider paths that veer away from convention, the roads less traveled. For those working to make not only their business but others soar, tell them you admire their chutzpah, respect their humility. Tell ‘em thanks, and spread the word of their grace.