Anyone who has studied business learned that companies exist for one reason: to earn a profit for shareholders.
This was the core tenant of every case study I read in business school. It’s the basis for every big decision companies make, distilled into one bottom line: what will maximize shareholder value?
But this single criteria sometimes blinds leaders, and at times turns a company into a social or environmental disaster.
Enlightened leaders know that companies need a more expansive vision, and they’ve built their own definitions of success.
Earlier this week, the New York Times published “Shareholder Value Is No Longer Everything, Top C.E.O.s Say,” as 200 chief executives, including the leaders of Apple, Pepsi and Walmart gathered to say their companies exist not just to maximize shareholder value, but also for the benefit of employees, customers, and their communities.
This very much aligns with my own thinking about the purpose of companies. When I started Tiller Money, I made a conscious decision that we would thrive in three ways:
- Tiller needed to be a great place to work for our team. A place where our team could do their best work, and an environment that supported their full lives, from kids to aging parents, from nieces and nephews and their larger community.
- Tiller needed to meaningfully improve the lives of our customers. We believe that when people are in control of their finances they are more in control of their future, and we need to truly deliver on our half of that bargain.
- Tiller needed to create outsize value for our owners. This includes our team and a small cadre of experienced technology investors, all of whom have been instrumental in our success.
Doing one or two of these three isn’t enough.
We can’t be a home run for customers while not taking care of our team. We can’t generate a win for owners without actually delivering real value to improve the lives of our customers.
This means Tiller Money can’t be a hack, a flash in the pan, a mirage.
Our bottom line is a triple bottom line or bust. When I am old, I need to be able to look back at TIller and know that we made a positive contribution to this world. I don’t know any way to do that without attending to all three priorities.
Along the way, a few people have suggested Tiller register as a benefit corporation (aka B corporation). This is a legal designation for a company “that includes positive impact on society, workers, the community and the environment in addition to profit.”
Benefit corporations are interesting, but I’ve always felt that every company should embrace an expanded set of values; they shouldn’t be values left to companies on the fringe that choose a special designation.
So this week, the earth shook (at least in my office) when I opened the New York Times and read that 200 CEOs through the Business Roundtable redefined the purpose of a corporation.
That purpose is no longer just to advance the interest of shareholders. Instead, these 200 CEOs listed five tenants. Here is the summary of their commitment:
- Delivering value to our customers. We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations.
- Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect.
- Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. We are dedicated to serving as good partners to the other companies, large and small, that help us meet our missions.
- Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.
- Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. We are committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders.
Right now these are just words. But when the captains of Apple, Amazon, JPMorgan, and others sign on to this commitment, it reflects a navigational change to the supertankers.
It may take years to see the repercussions, but they will come.
And it gives all of us a different scorecard by which we can hold these companies accountable. It also changes the narrative on the purpose of companies. (Time for business schools to update their curriculums!)
This can lead to positive changes in the years and decades ahead.
You may note that the list from the business roundtable has five bullets, while ours has focused on three.
I still view our customers, employees, and owners as our three-legged stool. Our impact on our suppliers is small relative to a company like Apple or Amazon, and at our size, I don’t think this deserves as much of our focus yet.
Similarly, I think for a company of our size and nature, the best way to make our communities and the environment better is by improving the lives of our customers and employees so they can be their best selves.
Tiller is a minnow next to these supertankers, but we welcome their shared commitment. Now let’s all live into them with the choices we make.