What better day than Labor Day in the U.S. to address the growing discussion about shareholders and stakeholders in market economies?
In recent years, there’s been more and more discussion about the need to expand corporate horizons beyond just serving shareholders to serving a broader range of “stakeholders.” While at one level this is long overdue, I fear the need is being expressed too narrowly.
It’s often framed as a choice – do we serve shareholders or serve other stakeholders, like employees, customers, business partners and community members? I’d like to suggest that it’s not an either/or choice but a both/and. Given the way the world is changing, the best way to generate expanding returns for shareholders is to find more creative ways of serving the evolving needs of all stakeholders. Those who continue to focus narrowly on shareholder interests will be increasingly marginalized and prove to be a deep disappointment to their shareholders.
Why is this true? Let’s look at how the world is changing, building on some of the perspectives that I outlined in my book The Power of Pull.
Diminishing returns from current approaches
For over a century, we’ve lived in a global industrial economy where the key to economic success was achieving economies of scale in asset intensive businesses. Those asset intensive businesses required massive investment and shareholders were increasingly demanding short-term returns on their investments.
This led to the emergence and growth of the scalable efficiency institutional model that has ruled the business world. The key to economic success was to become more and more efficient at scale, with a relentless focus on cost reduction and delivering short-term quarterly returns to shareholders.
But here’s the problem. The world is changing. What was efficient and successful in the past is becoming less and less successful over time. Need some evidence for this assertion? Check out the work I have done on return on asset trends for all public companies in the US. It turns out that from 1965 until today, return on assets for all public companies has declined by 75%, it has been a long and sustained erosion. (I know the link I provided only showed results up to 2015 but we have recently updated this to 2019 – the trend continues, and I will be writing more about this soon.)
Now, I will point out that return on assets is not the same as return to shareholders. It turns out that over this time, return to shareholders has also declined, but the decline has been cushioned by a series of financial engineering measures designed to serve the needs of shareholders – adding debt to the balance sheet, and increasing dividends and stock buybacks. Companies are remaining focused on serving the shareholder, but this is not a sustainable approach in a world of decreasing return on assets. There’s only so much debt that can be added to the balance sheet and less cash available to increase dividends and stock buybacks.
The scalable efficiency model
This erosion in return on assets is particularly ironic because we increasingly live in a global economy where much more value can be created with far less resources and far more quickly than was ever imaginable a few decades ago. What’s preventing us from harnessing this opportunity? It’s the scalable efficiency model.
Scalable efficiency encourages us to squeeze all other stakeholders in our never-ending quest to become more efficient. Employees? Keep their salaries as low as possible while increasing their production quotas. Business partners? Seek to get as much from them while paying them as little as possible. Customers? Raise your prices wherever possible and find ways to lower the production costs, even if quality may suffer. Community members? They’re a distraction – stay focused on the means of production.
But here’s the problem. Scalable efficiency is a diminishing returns proposition. The more efficient we become, the longer and harder we have to work to get the next increment of efficiency. The paradox is that, the more we focus on delivering short-term returns to shareholders through scalable efficiency, the lower those returns will be over time.
This approach diverts our attention from the opportunity to create more value – all our attention is focused on cutting costs. In a world of exponentially expanding opportunity, that’s a big loss. Here’s another paradox: the more we focus on delivering exponentially expanding value to shareholders, the more we will need to commit to address the needs of all stakeholders. Why is that?
Addressing the context of all stakeholders
Value depends on a deep understanding of context – the context of all stakeholders. It’s a key reason that I’ve suggested we’re moving from the Industrial Age to the Contextual Age.
It starts with the customer. Customers are becoming more and more powerful and increasingly insisting on products and services that are tailored to their specific and rapidly evolving needs. Understanding and anticipating those needs requires a rich understanding of the context of our customers. The most successful companies will be those who don’t just wait for customers to tell them what they need, but who instead invest the time and effort to anticipate those needs – and who understand the needs that are most fundamental and rapidly expanding.
But, that’s just the beginning. The companies that will be most successful will harness the potential for expanding leverage – creating more much more value with far less resources of their own. They will deliver much greater returns to shareholders. But the focus on leverage requires a deep understanding of the context of an expanding array of potential business partners. Understanding the context of business partners helps to identify their needs and what would motivate them to devote more time and effort to delivering more value to you and your customers. You will be much more successful in harnessing the power of pull and expanding your ecosystem of business partners if you understand and serve their needs.
And, of course, there are your employees. In a rapidly changing world, it has become a truism that employees are going to have to commit to lifelong learning. The learning that is most valuable is learning in the form of creating new knowledge through action together with others. The institutions that succeed in the future will be those who make the journey from scalable efficiency to scalable learning.
But few people are asking what’s the motivation to learn. The unstated assumption is that it’s fear – if you don’t learn faster, you’ll lose your job. While fear can motivate some learning, it’s a very limited motivator, especially when the learning involves risk-taking and working closely with others. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the passion of the explorer is a much more powerful motivator for learning.
The challenge is that very few workers today have that kind of passion for their work, as some of my recent research demonstrated. If we are really committed to cultivating that passion in our workforce, we need to develop a much deeper understanding of the personal context of our employees and what kind of impact has the most value and meaning for them. If we’re not addressing this value and meaning for our employees, we will not be successful in motivating them to learn faster and find ways to deliver more and more value to their colleagues, business partners and customers. We will not pull out of them more and more of their potential.
And, if we’re serious about serving the needs and delivering more and more value to our customers, business partners and employees, that inevitably leads to addressing another set of stakeholders – members of the communities we live and operate in. Our communities are a key element of the context for all of our stakeholders. If our communities are not thriving, then our other stakeholders will find it much more challenging to achieve the potential and impact that is most meaningful to them. The companies that understand the needs of their communities and actively contribute to their flourishing will be much more successful in creating value for their other stakeholders.
To harness the exponentially expanding opportunities that are emerging in our Big Shift world, we need to become much more aggressive in creating and delivering value for all our stakeholders. Shareholders will receive far more value from companies that find ways to expand leverage and accelerate learning. Those are the companies that will create much more value with far less resources and far more quickly than other companies. But leverage and learning require a deep commitment to all stakeholders – understanding their context and the value that is most meaningful to them and committing to deliver value to them. By addressing the needs of all stakeholders, companies will unleash the network effects that can create exponentially expanding value for shareholders, and for all stakeholders.