The true meaning of business success

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” Clarence Odbody, Angel Second Class

Would anyone miss your business if it didn’t exist? It’s a regular question consultants ask their clients in workshops. The answer is always ‘yes’ for some reason when probably half the time it should be ‘no’. It’s a hypothetical question of course. But what if your business really did not exist? What if for that matter you didn’t exist? Would you leave an ‘awful hole’?That ‘awful hole’ is the central plot device of one of the world’s greatest films, It’s A Wonderful Life.

George Bailey, the film’s hero, is on the brink of failure and so is his business, a Savings & Loan bank servicing the needs of the poorest members of his hometown of Bedford Falls. He faces bankruptcy, his family faces ruin. He is also bitterly aware that he will never fulfil his childhood dreams of travel, of invention and adventure.  In his hour of need, he is sent another failure, an Angel Second Class called Clarence who has been trying to earn his wings for over 200 years. George wishes he had never existed and Clarence shows him what the world would have been like if he hadn’t. I will not spoil the film for any of you who have not seen the movie by revealing any more of the plot.

Appropriately, the film itself was a commercial failure when it was first released. But over time, its reputation and its audience grew around the world. The American Film Institute ranked it top of the list of the 100 most inspirational American movies ever made.  For many people, including my family and me, it has become a must-watch movie every Christmas.
But the film’s theme is not failure. It’s theme is the true meaning of success, what matters most to us. And what matters most is the positive impact any of us will have on other people and the positive impact they, in turn, will have on others and the world in which we live. Success, if it can be measured, is measured in the lives you have touched and enhanced and especially in the friends you have made.

Business is a profoundly human activity. For all the talk of automation, robotisation, the rise of AI and other dystopian visions, business will always depend on people – people to buy what you sell, people to help you invent, develop and sell it.

And people are social animals. We want relationships, a sense of belonging. We want to be happy. We crave connections. We need friends.
Sometimes the culture of business encourages us to be brutal, to lack empathy or sympathy, to seek not only to win, but also to ensure someone else loses. There is a pressure for commercial results, for quick wins, for fast growth.  There is management by spreadsheet and remote ‘dashboards’.  There are disproportionate rewards to a few people at the top and a sense of disempowerment among people at the ‘frontline’.  All of this has the capacity to dehumanise business, to distance us from the thoughts and feelings of others. I am sure many of us have had a moment in business where we suddenly realised (or were made aware of) how the way we were treating someone was hurting them, how our pursuit of our narrow personal goal was causing others to suffer in some way. And when we have realised that, many of us will have been struck by remorse, perhaps even by the fear that we were making an enemy who would one day get revenge.

I guess it is impossible to avoid making ‘enemies’.  Even the much-loved George Bailey has an implacable enemy in the owner of the biggest bank in town, Henry Potter. But that does not mean we should actively seek to make them. Much better for any of us that we strive wherever and however we can to make friends. The most important book I read in my business life was the great Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends And Influence People. I wish it were a mandatory text for everyone on their first day at work.
Some businesses talk about their desire to create fans for their brand. But I don’t know if it’s always good to have that unquestioning level of loyalty for your business, for your brand, that the word ‘fan’ implies. Fans buy whatever you sell or tell them. They only have two modes – adoration or disillusionment. I prefer friends. A friend is someone who helps you be the better person you can be, who won’t put up with ‘any old crap’ from you. There’s a reason why the phrase is ‘critical friend’, not ‘critical fan’.  And yet a friend is always there for you, in a moment of celebration or in a moment of crisis.

Business certainly needs friends at the moment. This year, surveys in the USA and the UK have shown historic levels of distrust in business among the public. Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer revealed that across 28 countries surveyed, almost 50% of people had no trust in business to ‘do what is right’. And when the public loses trust in business, the risk of anti-business regulation rises.

So perhaps our goal in business – the ultimate aim of our pursuit of purpose, our delivery of a great customer experience, and our desire for profit – should simply be to make friends. To aspire to the quality of relationships with our customers, our employees, our suppliers, investors, the media and even regulators, that characterises friendship. A belief in a mutual reciprocity of goodwill and interest. A realisation that we all need each other, that we are here as much to help each other as to help ourselves.  And when we help each other, the world becomes a better place. Friends tend to help you ‘do what is right’.

It’s a Wonderful Life ends with a special message, the core message of the film. The angel Clarence inscribes it to George Bailey in a copy of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer.

“Remember no man is a failure who has friends”. And no business is either.

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It’s perhaps overlooked that Kermit is a businessman – or businessfrog. He leads a team which is as about as diverse as you could imagine. What’s more, he’s constantly fighting crises on every front, to keep the business going. There’s a lot we can learn this Christmas from…

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