Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Losing Track of Yourself

What happens when a company, an organization, maybe even a country loses track of itself?

What happens when it was started for one reason, with one set of values and one purpose in mind--and then finds itself veering wildly off course?

Yesterday's headlines were filled with two such examples.

The first wasn't Goldman Sachs (it was, to be fair, the second).

The first was, oddly enough, Craigslist.

I remember sitting on stage with Craig Newmark, almost 5 years ago, and interviewing him about the original intent of the phenomenon he started. I'm sure it was a question he'd been asked many times. Still, I found his answer compelling.

Craigslist was intended to give everybody the same chance, he said. If you needed a job, needed an apartment, wanted to get people interested in something you were doing or offering, Craigslist was designed to democratize opportunity. No more special advantages for people with inside information. Craigslist was for every one.

That was then. This is now.

Now, according to a well-researched piece in the NY Times, Craigslist has become one of the main vehicles for prostitution. And this isn't a cute web-based version of "Pretty Woman." According to the newspaper article, one of New York's major crime families has been offering the services of underage girls. This is not pretty woman--it's not even pretty girl. It's plain flat-out ugly.

Now, nobody suggests that Craigslist is breaking the law.

But what the site is allowing to happen is wrong. And it has absolutely nothing with the original intent that Craig Newmark expressed as the fundamental purpose of the list that bears his name.

Something here is wrong. In more ways than one.

And then there is the Goldman Sachs example.

A storied firm which has often been held up as what a service firm ought to be, a client-focused operation which historically has had only the highest sense of purpose, Goldman is now the poster child for self-enrichment, self-advancement, and self-interest.

In a narrow 3-2 vote, the SEC is bringing charges against Goldman.

But much as is the case with Craiglist, it may be the case that, legally, Goldman is operating on the edge of the law.

But on the edge of the law isn't where Goldman started. It isn't how it earned its reputation. And it isn't what the original intent of the company was.

Something has gotten lost.

Some sense of purpose and mission, values and original intent has come unmoored.

It is part of a Great Disconnect that afflicts much of American business.

We have important companies that have lost track of themselves.

We have cool new startups that have veered from their original purpose.

My friend Jim Collins recently called to mind a quote from John W. Gardner, who, among other things, founded Common Cause.

The quote says: "Freedom and responsibility. Liberty and Duty. That's the deal."

Too many of our business "leaders" want freedom and no responsibility. Freedom to make as much money as possible. Freedom to do business in a way that confers the greatest rewards for them, the greatest power for their firm, the greatest growth for their operation, the greatest reach for their egos.

And they want liberty--liberty to do as they please. Liberty to take liberties.

But responsibility and duty?

They seem like ancient words from another time, another place.

That's the Great Disconnect.

We need to put what Gardner called "the deal" back together.

We need a New Old Deal.

Without it, everything we are, everything we could be is at risk.

That's what happens when you lose track of yourself.

All Rights Reserved 2009 (c) Alan Webber, Rules Of Thumb