Business IS Personal

dov seidman

Dov Seidman asks: What ideas are you building your company on?

It’s an important question for all organizations, and some companies are responding with innovative and inspiring answers. Ideas shape our thinking, animate our endeavors, and serve as the foundation upon which we scale our institutions and companies. When business leaders scale their organizations on the wrong ideas, dysfunction inevitably arises. For example the idea that ruthless behavior is acceptable (“nothing personal, just business”), even necessary, in the workplace is deeply embedded in many companies. This idea is evident at funerals of business leaders, where someone eulogizes, “He was a ruthless boss but a wonderful husband and father.”

Short-termism, managing a business on a quarter-by-quarter basis to artificially boost stock prices and incentive compensation levers, marks another widely held foundational idea that produces widespread dysfunction. The good news is that more business leaders are rethinking this idea.

National Instruments co-founder and CEO James Truchard developed a 100-year plan after his company went public in 1995 as a way to prevent Wall Street investors from forcing the company into a short-term view. The 100-year plan, according to Truchard, helps builds his organization’s culture and fosters innovation and integrity. The plan is about people and its time horizon suggests that National Instruments’ employees (as well as customers and shareholders) can count on those people for decades to come.

IBM celebrated its 100th birthday last year (and, more recently, its highest valuation ever), thanks in large part to its investment in long-term thinking, risk-taking and values. IBM Chairman Sam Palmisano has said the key to the company’s longstanding success was avoiding becoming tied to the products and services (its “whats”) that it makes. Instead, IBM has remained wedded to the values and ideas – satisfying customer needs, forging enduring relationships and innovation – that have characterized how the company has operated. IBM has long emphasized the value of a sustainable culture. As Lou Gerstner, former Chairman and CEO of IBM, observed: “I came to see, in my time at IBM that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game; it is the game.”

Those feel-good values, by the way, inspired tough risk-taking, including IBM’s “$5 billion gamble,” as another business magazine once put it, at the height of its success in the mid-1960s. That investment produced the System/360, the first large “family” of computers to use interchangeable software and peripheral equipment, which marked a stunning (and prescient) departure from the monolithic, one-size-fits-all mainframe.

Like IBM, Grand Rapids-Mich.-based organization Steelcase is using its 100-year anniversary as an opportunity to do some soul-searching. As with National Instruments, Steelcase is taking time to look way out into the future at a time when it has become increasingly difficult to manage on a one-year basis, let alone according to a five-year plan. What’s more, Steelcase is conducting this exercise after an arduous and successful journey to transform itself into a global company whose mission extends well beyond the “whats” that it manufactures. Marking their centennial, Steelcase CEO Jim Hackett said: “We’re human-centered as a culture, and therefore human-centered as a business…our customers turn to Steelcase not just because of what we make, but because of what we know. We create products and services, but our customers buy insights and innovation.”

On the surface you might classify Steelcase as a global manufacturer of office furniture, but the company has a deeper idea about how and why it operates. Steelcase views business as a journey. They have been on an illustrious century-old journey yet what I am struck by is that they are not just celebrating the anniversary. Steelcase is being intentional about forging deep connections in this re-shaped world to ensure an equally, if not more, illustrious future. Steelcase’s employees say on their website that they “study how people work and then use those insights to help organizations achieve a higher level of performance by creating places that unlock the promise of their people”. Which company would you rather commit your working hours to: a furniture maker or an organization that “creates places” that help its customers “unlock the promise” of their own people?

I know I would want to work for the latter organization because its mission is much more inspiring. It connects with me on a human level by acknowledging that business is personal. As part of Steelcase’s birthday self-reflection, the company asked 100 leading thinkers and 100 children from around the world to contribute ideas worth scaling. The company’s year-long anniversary project, “100 Dreams. 100 Minds. 100 Years” serves as a springboard to the century ahead.

I was honored to be asked to share my ideas, and found it a meaningful opportunity to reflect on a highly personal job that I embrace and to think about the ideas on which I am building my own company:

My son recently turned four, which inspired me to look to the past for wisdom, and to the future with hope. A century from now, I believe the world will be defined by knowledge the philosopher Heraclitus shared some 2,500 years ago: “Character is destiny.” My wife was born in Russia and we named our son Lev Tov to remind him how to behave in pursuit of his destiny. In Russian, Lev means lion. In Hebrew, Lev means heart and Tov, of course, means good. I believe we gave our son a good name, but it is not enough to have a good name. Lev needs to spend the rest of his life earning it. My job is to help him become that person. This job is about values, it’s about character, and it’s about the strength to be resilient and the ability to roam the world confidently, like a lion, even when unthinkable and unimaginable things can happen and do happen often. Lev’s growth is also about the ability to relate to a world that grows more connected and morally interdependent every second.

In 100 years, the nature and quality of our connections will be paramount. This holds true for sons, leaders, companies and countries – all of us have to earn our good name based on how we behave and relate to others. On this count I am filled with hope – the quality I most want to inspire in all of my connections, including Lev. …When we have hope, we lean into the world, and a sense of curiosity and possibility takes root that allows us to connect with others and collaborate with them to commit to bring about a better future.

My colleagues and I at LRN are growing a company committed to inspiring more principled leadership in business operations. One of the ways we are striving to do so is by helping our partners free themselves, their organizations and their marketplaces from being in the grip of outdated and misguided ideas.

I’ll ask again: What ideas are you building your company on?

Think about it. I do, every day. I will be celebrating my own hope for a better future by writing more in the coming months on the “History of Ideas” that future historians will write about- the notions that shape our thinking, animate our endeavors and serve as the foundation upon which we scale our institutions.

Dov Seidman is the author of How: Why How we do Anything Means Everything. He is the founder and CEO of LRN. This blog first appeared at

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