When Larry Fink, chairman and CEO of Blackrock, the world's biggest asset management firm, declared that companies needed to reconcile profit and purpose in his letter to business leaders earlier this year, Twitter feeds, news articles, and Powerpoint charts were quickly filled with his words as they helped support the welcome narrative of purpose-driven, do-good business.

Bye Bye to "Stakeholder-First"?

This week, the Business Roundtable issued a statement signed by 181 American CEOs (including Larry Fink) along similar lines, calling on companies to no longer treat shareholder value as an overriding metric and instead shift to a more stakeholder-oriented approach. 

As purpose and green(washing) have become a meme, one could argue that the Business Roundtable statement might be at best a symbol of goodwill, and at worst a half-hearted marketing ploy. As Farhad Manjoo puts it in the New York Times, CEOs are still after your lunch, but now they also want you to know how much they care, while stealing it from your fridge.

It's not a new thing either. When Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric and one of the many (so-to-speak) fathers of the shareholder-first approach, stated--nine years ago--that "On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world," it feels like it has taken us quite some time to feel the urge to rethink the business of business.

Since then we have heard variations of the same theme: Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum, coined "multi-stakeholder governance" (borrowing from management guru Peter Drucker), and Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher famously boiled it down to "employees first, customers second, shareholders third."

So it might not seem like the most groundbreaking revelation to include customers, suppliers, communities, society, and the planet in the list of stakeholders that any business should and must serve. And yet, even though the CEOs who signed the Business Roundtable statement won't be able to revert their past decisions in aggressively gaining more market share, this could certainly be a pivotal moment for putting words into action.

That applies to you and your company, too.

26 Questions to Test If You've Really Moved Beyond "Shareholder-First"

Ask these 26 questions to see how serious you or your CEO really are about shifting from shareholder value to stakeholder value (or purpose, if you prefer that term).

  1. Are you or your company open to removing or at least weakening the link between CEO compensation and stock performance?
  2. Would your company be open to participating in a Long-Term-Stock-Exchange?
  3. In addition to a flashy purpose statement that may receive a lot of likes, would you be open to a legally binding commitment to not use your company as speculative asset for private gain?
  4. Are you a B Corp? Are you working on becoming one?
  5. Have you considered purpose steward ownership? If not, have you explored keeping (some of) your voting rights within the company rather than giving them away to external investors?
  6. Are your workers unionized?
  7. Are you paying a living wage to all of them?
  8. Are employee benefits such as healthcare or support for family leave an integral part of your company culture?
  9. Are your employees encouraged to state their preferred pronouns?
  10. Does your company ensure equal pay for all genders in similar roles? If not, will you address this as a leader or with your leadership?
  11. Do you have effective policies and processes in place to address discrimination, bullying, sexual harassment, and other abuses of power?
  12. Have you always paid and will you always pay the full amount of taxes without using legal loopholes to lower your company's tax contribution?
  13. Have you or your company raised your voice publicly to protect vulnerable or marginalized populations? Will you in the future?
  14. Does your company take a political stance when it sees its values tarnished?
  15. Do you support community-led organizations and institutions in your sector? Do you support them beyond monetary donations?
  16. As for your shareholders, do you draw knowledge from experts outside from business, e.g. from science and the humanities?
  17. In times of crisis, do you insist that some elements of your culture are sacrosanct and non-negotiable?
  18. Do you encourage your employees to take the train instead of flying if possible? Do you reward them for commuting to work by bike or public transportation?
  19. Can your employees work from home, at least partly?
  20. Do you treat your customers' privacy with respect even if there is no legal requirement to do so?
  21. Have you never knowingly or inadvertently pursued growth at the expense of your customers' wellbeing? 
  22. Have you never knowingly or inadvertently pursued growth at the expense of your employees' wellbeing? 
  23. Have you never knowingly or inadvertently pursued growth at the expense of societal and planetary wellbeing? 
  24. When you have the possibility to automate processes to cut costs, will you always reskill your employees?
  25. Do you feel responsible for widening social inequality?
  26. Do you create products, services, and experiences that are not only useful but also beautiful?

So...

If your answer is no to all of these questions, then your departure from the dogma of shareholder-first is just lip service. Consider positioning yourself instead as the last vocal defendant of shareholder value.

If your answer is no to most of these questions, your intentions may be good, but you clearly have work to do!

If your answer is yes to most questions, congratulations! It looks like you and your company genuinely care about social responsibility and the wellbeing of your employees and customers. Continue on the path of enlightenment.

It's Complicated...and Urgent

The reality is, of course, that it is indeed hard to overcome the shareholder value fixation when the rubber hits the road. As long as publicly listed companies are measured by their quarterly earnings, satisfying shareholders' interests will remain the safe fallback solution.

Against that background, the statement by the Business Roundtable CEOs can easily be mocked as mere rhetoric in order to avoid true structural reforms. At the same time, it may provide a long overdue opening for having a deeper conversation about the kind of business we tolerate--or want.

It is no surprise that the CEOs' declaration coincides with Silicon Valley's tech titans' reckoning with their moral and societal legitimacy. In traditional and new industries alike, the masters of the universe are nervous. Their platforms are burning. Let's not just fix them. Let's imagine a much more humane economy from the ground up.

Published on: Aug 22, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.