How To Run A Successful Business And Still Go To Heaven

Joost
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- 9 min read

Although we are already well into the new year, I wrote this when 2022 had just started. Traditionally, new years start with good intentions being formulated. However, after two years of COVID, I believe it is not just time to formulate good intentions — it's time to formulate radical intentions. Let me propose one: what about radically changing our view on work?

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If we want to radically change our view on work, we first have to find consensus on how most (Western) people view work currently.

Work as a corrupt waste of time

I would argue that work is traditionally viewed as a bad thing in general. Most see it as a mandatory activity to make money and pay the bills. Work is considered to be something you have to do in order to do something else in your private life, which, of course, occurs when the workday or workweek is over.

As such, work is generally regarded as a curse. Something to be loathed. Something we have to suffer through.

How sad.

This negative view on work is nothing new — it can be traced all the way back to the Classical Period. The ancient Greeks viewed work from the premise of being demeaning, an activity that had to be endured by the unfortunate, such as the slaves and plebs.

Philosophers like Plato and Aristotle recognized that work was a necessary evil to satisfy material needs. Still, they viewed work as a corrupt waste of time.

They also made it clear that the large majority of people needed to work so the minority elitist — the lucky few who did not have to work — could dedicate their lives to the arts, philosophy, and politics.

The Industrial Revolution did not change this view for the better. Work was perhaps no longer seen as demeaning, but it was still viewed primarily as a way to prevent poverty and misery. People were no longer slaves in an official sense, but they were still supposed to work long days — often six days a week — for meager wages.

So, while the Industrial Revolution brought radical new ways of working and changed the nature of work, it did not bring radical new views on work. In fact, our commonly held beliefs on work have remained roughly the same ever since.

Priorities of the traditional view on work

Ancient views still impact how the majority of people think and feel about work today.

They also dictate that the priorities of companies are to be as follows: they need to excel with money, business, and people. In that order.

1. Money

The first priority of the traditional view on work revolves mainly around maximizing profits or shareholder value.

The idea of maximizing profits at all costs took center stage since the 1970s. Since then, companies have been very creative in stripping away as much value as possible from customers, employees, suppliers, and the wider community at large (i.e., not paying taxes), all with the intent of distributing maximum profit to their shareholders.

I mean, after all, you cannot spend a penny twice. Every penny spent on other things is a penny that cannot be paid as dividends to shareholders. You get the idea.

This trend started with traditional legacy companies but didn’t stop there.

In fact, since the 2000s, the startup world has pushed this idea to new extremes, as most tech companies exist mainly to maximize profits for their venture capitalist-backed investors.

2. Business

To create shareholder value, you need to create value first. You need to be able to sell products and services to customers. In other words, you need to excel in business.

So, the second priority of traditional organizations revolves mainly around excelling in business by selling products and services to others.

And since the first priority is making money, excelling in business is the second priority that is actually in the service of the former.

This can can lead to unhealthy behaviors like trying to sell things to people who do not even need them (i.e., fast fashion) or products that harm people (i.e., tobacco), the environment (i.e., mining), or the wider communities (i.e., social media).

3. People

In order to sell products and services to consumers, you need people that are capable of making the stuff. This leads to the third priority of the traditional view of work: people (or employees, or maybe just a pair of hands).

Traditional organizations argue that the employees capable of producing the stuff customers buy are their actual assets. People are viewed as assets because they have value for shareholders. Why? Because these assets can be converted into money.

They treat people as human resources to create value for the shareholders. Ideally, those resources are as cheap as possible and ultimately disposable when they are no longer needed. Or when a cheaper alternative emerges.

Flaws in the logic

There are many flaws in this logic of priorities, but here’s one to highlight in particular: no employee in the world wakes up in the morning and thinks, ”Hell yeah, let's get out there and maximize some shareholder value today.”

Naturally, we all know that this is not what work is supposed to look like. However, if we are not motivated by the maximizing shareholder value gospel, how then should we view work in the first place?

Should we view it as a way to earn money? As a way to gain power? To gain glory? To gain fame? Or is to be useful? To make friends at work? A way to serve a higher purpose? A way to make a difference in the world?

Our research on the progressive organizations from our Bucket List revealed that these companies do not view work as a corrupt waste of time. Instead, they have a radical and far more inspiring view.

They offer not only a positive alternative to the traditional notion of work, they also have a radically different view on the actual priorities of work.

Priorities of the progressive view on work

Progressive organizations approach work from an alternative view; one that consists of excelling on the same three aspects: money, business, and people.

However, they are prioritized in reverse order.

1. People

The first priority of progressive organizations is their people. They view people as individuals — not as resources or assets.

The ultimate goal of these organizations is to facilitate the development of their workers while also offering fulfillment, growth, and meaningful engagement for them.

These organizations treat employees as individuals with their own dreams, hopes, and fears, motivated by purposes and goals that are not driven exclusively by money.

2. Business

Progressive organizations believe that employee fulfillment, growth, and engagement lead to business success.

They believe that engaged people lead to loyal customers that come back again and again. Customer satisfaction is an outflow of happy, engaged, purposeful employees.

That also means that progressive organizations do not aim to sell unneeded or unwanted stuff to their customers, nor do they aim to produce things that harm people, the environment, and the wider community.

3. Money

The third priority of progressive organizations is achieving financial success. They believe that making a profit should be a consequence of the first two priorities (engaged workers + loyal customers) instead of focusing on profits first.

These organizations regard making a profit as a consequence of underlying priorities, not the priority itself. That is why they do not primarily focus on maximizing shareholder value but rather on investing in their people to better serve their customers.

To summarize, progressive organizations aim to achieve excellence on all three priorities. However, the main priority of these organizations is the fulfillment of their workers and the people around them.

Work as fun

Although these progressive organizations are very successful with their human-centric view on work, the idea that a company can be good to its employees and still be successful seems so unusual in today’s environment that many people do not even think it is possible.

Luckily, the organizations on our Bucket List show that it is possible. They show that you can run a highly successful business and still go to heaven.

For them, it starts with this fundamental change of perspective. They view work not as a curse but as fun. Not as a burden, not as a corrupt was of time, but as an opportunity.

We can all go to heaven

So, where do we begin? How can we fix work and all go to heaven?

It begins by scrapping our old view on work and rewriting the rules on how we approach work collectively.

We especially need to change the rule dictating that companies put shareholders and investors above employees. We need to flip that upside down.

Companies need to put employees above their shareholders and investors. Just as importantly, the incentives of leadership teams need to be in line with this radically different view.

As such, the pay of leaders should no longer be exclusively tied to shareholder value, but rather the satisfaction of the employees and customers of the organization.

It’s simple: only by radically changing our view of work — and actually acting upon it — can we start transforming business in a meaningful, impactful way.

Easier said than done, of course, but we must start. The current system of profits-over-people is unsustainable.

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