Think about the things that you truly value in your life. Your family, your friends. Your experiences. The things that make you feel alive.
How many of those things do you quantify?
My hunch is that the answer is probably none of them, for most people.
Why, then, in our organisations and institutions have we got to a point where value is used almost interchangeably for measurement? Why is it that value can only be expressed in business if it has a number attached?
Last night I spent some time at an event listening to the head of a FTSE 250 organisation speaking about his experiences. He was engaging, likeable, and had a humility that revolved around understanding that his success was a combination of hard work and good luck (and could all disappear tomorrow). He’d come from an accounting background, and so much of his narrative was in terms of numbers. He was also a self-confessed control freak.
He talked about how, as the head of a publicly-listed company he spent quite a bit of his time talking with representatives of the institutions that invested in his firm. And he told of how none of them had the first clue about how his business worked or, really, what it did. All they cared about was shareholder return, and that in turn shaped the way in which he had to run his business (certainly above the surface).
The American writer PJ O’Rourke once wrote (in his damning of the public sector) about the four ways in which people can spend money. When we spend our own money on ourselves, we exercise prudence. When we spend our own money on somebody else we can be either prudent or extravagant. When we spend somebody else’s money on ourselves we can be profligate, and when we are spending somebody else’s money on somebody else we struggle to give a shit. I’m not entirely true that that holds true in the public sector (O’Rourke is a rabid Republican), but I do wonder if it underpins the mechanisms that power institutional investment into our public companies.
At the end of his talk last night, we chatted briefly. I said how impressed I had been with how candid he was, how refreshing it was to hear a senior business leader who didn’t believe his own hype, but also that I was fairly sure from what he described that he was someone I couldn’t work for.
But then I asked him what in hindsight was something of a cruel question. “But could you work for you?”
And, with all credit to him for not telling me to just piss off, he very directly replied “Do you know, I don’t think I could.”
What have we created? Organisations where not even the people at the top would work in them? A case study of one, I know, but I fear not exceptional. Companies driven to return to shareholder above anything else leading to the only things being truly valued being things that few if any can motivate themselves around, leading to economic incentivisation, or “compensation” as US companies term pay and benefits.
I like to end these articles on a positive. Ideas about how change might happen. Things that might be useful. And I’ve really struggled with that with this one. But I come back to the first question, and ask it of myself. What have I done this week that I have truly valued? And there’s been much – I’ve met some wonderful people, had some great conversations, helped a few people to think differently about things and introduced a few people to each other who didn’t know each other before. I’ve had time with my family, helping my kids to learn and some of it just laughing. And so in my own little way I’ve been fighting to put value into things that are valuable to me. Not just those things that I can quantify…