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Book review: Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia

3 Comments

Here’s a review I wrote for Amazon. I think I could probably write several reviews of this book – there’s such a lot in it. But here is a snapshot:

This is a great book.

I must declare a bias: I am a real fan of the ideas presented here, and I have met one of the authors.

But trying to put that to one side, I still think it is a great book.

It is very thorough, very complete, and like my colleague Will McInnes’ book Culture Shock: A Handbook For 21st Century Business it is full of practical advice and suggestions on building a different type of business.

It is clearly written, full of good stories and quotes. It also seems to include a good measure of honesty – as when John Mackey describes the problems he had with the SEC.

It is ideological, yes, but I think that is what we need right now. There’s a lot of talk in business about disruption, and how business should respond, but this book sets out the beginnings of an intellectual and emotional framework for business in the 21st century.

Umair Haque’s Betterness: Economics for Humans (Kindle Single) also comes to mind.

After an introduction, which aims to reset the narrative of business, the book is broken into several sections on making practical changes to the way a business works:

– Higher Purpose
– Stakeholder Integration
– Conscious Leadership
– Conscious Culture and Management

The book pulls together a lot of thinking from a range of very diverse sources. That is the whole point I suppose: to bring topics such as economics, sustainability, business management, psychology and systems thinking together. Indeed, the authors aren’t afraid to mix words like love and care in with the kind of terminology (innovation, collaboration, decentralisation) you will read in many modern books on business management.

There are lots of practical examples and stories from Whole Foods Market. That company is obviously better known in the US than the UK, and there is a notable lack of any European examples (John Lewis, the Co-op, Cadburys etc). But as founder and CEO, John Mackey has been through most of the major decisions that need to be made in setting up and growing a large, listed company.

Once or twice I had a bit of a sharp intake of breath.

The term “free-enterprise capitalism” personally reminds me of “free market capitalism”, in the style of Reagan and Thatcher. Something to which I have an instinctive and somewhat negative reaction. But, after a moment, I reminded myself to suspend a little, remember that I am not an economic theorist or expert, and read on.

And their real point is that capitalism generally has given itself a very bad name with the people who should be supporting it – those of us who believe in freedom for individuals and also in sharing, giving etc.

The other slight intake of breath came when Margaret Thatcher is listed amongst a list of leaders with high integrity, including Gandhi and other personal heroes. Again personally, I found this hard to take.

But again the truth is this is probably more about my biases and prejudices than anything else. And a good book, I believe, should challenge one’s thinking, not just confirm one’s prejudices. I resolved to dig out a biography and do some deeper research.

The book ends with sections on starting a conscious business, and transforming to become one.

An appendix covers the business case for Conscious Capitalism – including reference to Raj Sisodia’s work on Firms of Endearment and a comparison with the “Good to Great” companies. This, in my view, is a very strong and compelling financial case.

Another appendix gives a very useful list of similar, related approaches (such as sustainable business, B-corporations etc), and explains why conscious capitalism is different.

In a final section, which contains a call to action, I was pleased to see a reference to Tom Paine, author of Common Sense and the Rights of Man. These, at the time, were seditionary works. They stirred people up.

This book is similar – some will hate it, but the mixture of emotion and intellect is powerful. Which is important, because, as the authors say, there’s no time to waste.

Overall, this is a manifesto for a new type of business. Or, if you simply want to find out what Conscious Capitalism and Conscious Business are all about, this is a great starting point.

It is a big book as well as a great book. It will take you a while to read. But in my view it is really worth the effort.

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Author: Pete Burden

Asking good questions in a complex world to help people navigate, learn & grow #Coaching #Leadership #ActionLearning #OD Projects & businesses with #SocialValue

3 thoughts on “Book review: Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business by John Mackey and Raj Sisodia

  1. I’m finally going to get a copy just now…

  2. Thanks for the review Pete, I’ve bought a copy and it’s next on my reading list. I really know what you mean about the Thatcher thing and it is good to suspend long-held beliefs. In a world where paradigms are changing we have to continue to do that. Thatcher was ‘the enemy’ in my house when I was growing up in the 80’s, but back then everything was so divided between the Conservatives and the Socialists when actually what seems to be emerging now is a ‘third way’ – taking the innovation and organisational ability of free market capitalism, with many of the higher values of socialism, but without the need for a huge lumbering state controlling everything.

    The big question I’m hoping the book will help me to answer is about ownership of these better businesses. Even if a large firm is a Conscious Business, it may still be owned by a stock market, which is dominated by the richest 1% of people. http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2010/11/17/who-owns-the-stock-market.aspx
    If these businesses do well, then how do we avoid rising inequality, and the problems that creates in society, as the rich get even richer from owning better businesses? This is where I tend to favour cooperative economics where ownership is shared amongst stakeholders.
    I’d love your thoughts on this, and I shall read the book as well before making my mind up.

  3. Hi Tom

    I think the book is particularly good on this area of investors. Not just from a theoretical but also from a practical standpoint.

    “Win6” comes to mind – simply refusing to *compromise* on the goal of “optimizing long-term value creation for the business as a whole”. The operative word is compromise – ie find a win/lose.

    This framework will, of course, dictate and guide the choice of investors. For example, WFM have apparently had very good relationships over the long-term with investors.

    Because not all investors are bad, nor are they run by bad people.

    We need to think about it systemically – and acknowledge that the system has altered in such a way that speculative investments have become more common. For example, as the book records, the average shareholding period in the US has dropped from about 12 years in the 1940s to about 8 years in the 1960s, to well below one year today.

    Investing has stopped being investing (which means for the long term) and become speculation.

    My view however is that the good investors are still there – the system just makes it harder to find them and to work with them, and perhaps harder for them to operate.

    The best practical way around that if you are running a business , as Raj and John points, out is to stick to the goal above – and seek out long-term investors.

    We can also all contribute to changing the stock market one investor at a time – by being in it (individually or through our pension funds).

    And we can also contribute by campaigning for systemic changes to the way the stock market operates (as many have done and are doing).

    Best
    Pete

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