Think Like a Mother (Or: Why Stakeholder Capitalism is a Dangerous Concept)

Photo by Simon Rae

I’ve just given a short talk to a corporate audience at a daylong online conference. I was invited to help close out the day with some provocative thoughts. And still, it felt risky and brave.

Here’s the description of the session, as it was given to me:

This discussion will look ahead and try to imagine a world that has truly arrived at stakeholder capitalism at minimum, or a just and regenerative economy at best. Speakers will offer pathways to getting us there, along with suggestions for highly effective levers of change we need along the way.

Here’s what I said:

You’ve asked me to share some provocative thoughts to send people off at the end of the day, thoughts about pathways to stakeholder capitalism at a minimum and a just and regenerative economy at best. First I want to offer a little background about my own journey and the work I do now as a way to illustrate that pathway.

I started my career in brand strategy, working internationally for HJ Heinz and then for Coca-Cola. And I’ll tell you: it was deeply disillusioning. I felt that there was something really important missing in how we think about the relationship with customers and community. But I couldn’t put my finger on just what was missing, and everyone else seemed to think things were just fine. So I decided to leave marketing and move into employee engagement and organizational culture. But again, it was disillusioning. Again, I felt that something was missing — this time in how we think about our relationship with employees. It was around that time that the sustainability movement really started to gain visibility, and again it seemed clear: something was missing in how we think about our relationship with the world around us.

What I eventually concluded was that we have a dominant guiding story in society that tells us everything operates like a machine, especially our organizations. It tells us that we’re separate from each other, separate from nature, separate from our organizations. That we exist to compete and consume. And that profitability and productivity are the only things that matter. That’s the dominant worldview that shapes every aspect of our lives, from education to healthcare to agriculture and maybe most of all, business. It’s a fundamentally mechanistic and reductionist, even extractive, worldview. And I believe that every major problem we face in society can be traced back to the limitations of that story.

Twenty years ago, I went in search of the rest of the story — in search of a worldview that also included life. In particular, I researched biology to understand what it takes for anything that is alive to thrive. At the same time, I dove into the organizational literature to understand what it takes for an organization to thrive. And I found a core set of patterns or characteristics common to all of them. These are the fertile conditions that have to be cultivated if anything alive is to thrive. I went further into the research and developed a consulting framework around those patterns. And after working with them in a range of organizations and industries for 15 years, I published a book called The Age of Thrivability.

Sometimes I do talk about this work as a pathway to a just and regenerative society. But more often I talk about “thrivability.” And I define it as “the informed intention and practice of enabling life to thrive” at every level: for individuals, for the organization as a dynamic living ecosystem, for customers, community and biosphere. Informed, because if we’re going to enable life to thrive, then we need to know what life requires. Intention, because we’re currently setting our sights on something far less than life’s ability to thrive — things like profit and productivity, which aren’t bad in themselves, but if that’s the extent of our intention, then we’re going to continue to get something catastrophically less than thriving. So it’s vital that we make it our explicit intention to enable life to thrive. And finally, practice, because this work of enabling life to thrive is not a certificate or a program. It’s a lifelong practice, an individual and collective practice of deepening in wisdom and compassion and the ability to sense what’s needed and to respond with effective action. So that’s what I’ve dedicated my work and my life to — inviting people into this informed intention and practice of thrivability.

I started by working with individual companies. But eventually, I saw that that wasn’t enough. I realized that this needs to be an industry-wide conversation, in every industry. Because not only is it about system change, it’s about collective wisdom and discernment and imagination. It requires multiple experiments and shared learning. And it takes more courage than most people and most companies have on their own.

For example, I’m working now with the tourism industry in two separate countries, in each case in an ongoing multi-stakeholder process of conversation and learning and experimentation. At the heart of it is a shift away from the mechanistic, extractive goal of simply growing the tourism industry as if it’s a conveyor belt that exists only to pass as many people through a destination as possible and shake as much money loose from their pockets as possible along the way. It’s shifting away from that towards nurturing and cultivating the hosting communities — the language shifts from “the tourism industry” to “the hosting community.” And the work shifts towards helping them discover who they are together, what they care about, how they can care for their place together, and what kind of experience they want to offer that will be nourishing to visitors and also to themselves and to their place. That then shifts how national tourism organizations see themselves from purely destination marketing offices to seeing themselves as “hosting the hosts.” It’s a rethink of their role and their goals and even of the skills that are required.

Here’s where I want to say: stakeholder capitalism is a dangerous concept. It sounds so comforting, like a meaningful advance. And maybe it is, in some ways. But it’s also still stuck in the very short list of whose lives matter. It’s still reductionist. And it’s still stuck in putting capital at the center of the conversation. It asks: how do we generate money for some few as the primary focus of our efforts, and how can we add a few more players to the short list of beings that we won’t do direct and active harm to in the process? But who gets included on the list? The pandemic has shown us that it’s harder and harder to draw a hard line around any of our activities and say: what I do only affects this short list of “stakeholders,” and so I will only consider them.

My point isn’t that generating money is bad. But making that the primary goal is.

What’s needed is a far bigger, more important, more courageous conversation.

There’s the saying: where there’s a will, there’s a way. And apparently, judging by our collective action so far, there isn’t the will to do what’s really needed to avoid extinction, otherwise we would have found the way. To me, the full version of the saying is: where there’s an aligned worldview, then there’s the will and there’s a way. But our worldview now tells us that money is the most important thing and that a short list of stakeholders are the only ones we need to be concerned about. That worldview blocks us from having the will to find a way to avoid extinction. It blocks us from being able to imagine a way to do that. Until we actively, collectively replace that worldview in each of our own contexts, then we’ll never find the will or the way to get to a just and regenerative society.

So my first piece of advice is: start by paying attention to the language you use. See what more becomes visible, what more seems possible when you shift from using mechanistic terminology, like leverage and capital, to using organic language like cultivate and fertile conditions and thriving.

My second piece of advice is: create spaces and conversations where you can shift from thinking like a capitalist and start thinking like a mother. A mother knows that money is an important part of managing the household, but it’s not the purpose of managing the household.

And third, like my tourism clients, ask: how can our sector be a pathway to a just, regenerative society? How can it be a force for healing and regeneration?

The last thing I want to say is: if we’re going to talk about stakeholders, then let’s also talk about what’s at stake. My daughter said to me two days ago that she heard the expression “climate apocalypse” for the first time and it really upset her. It upsets me, too. What’s needed is the equivalent of that WWII mobilization, where everyone comes together to reconfigure what gets produced and how, and who to partner with. I struggle to see how we’ll get there with a focus on stakeholder capitalism. From what I can see, we need to put a just, regenerative, society — and life’s ability to thrive — at the center of our most courageous conversations.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store