Alicia is 9 years old. She likes Barbie dolls, kittens and Brittany Spearsâ€™ music. She has a great smile, sparkling eyes and an insatiable curiosity. But Alicia has something that most 9-year-olds donâ€™t: a daily battle with pain. Alicia has cerebral palsy.
Alicia knows the inside of a hospital like the back of her hand. She knows the frightening experience of having a body that is out of her control. She knows what itâ€™s like to have people stare and whisper and shake their heads in dismay. And she knows that her life will always be different.
What Alicia doesnâ€™t know is that she isnâ€™t even on the radar screen of a lot of people who could help.
The problem isnâ€™t that these people wouldnâ€™t help if they knew. The problem is that Alicia doesnâ€™t meet the measure of worthwhile clients. In the financial industry, Alicia has no net worth, and therefore she doesnâ€™t exist.
One of the essential requirements of reflective business is to determine where our existing measurements of success reduce our view of human worth. Alicia is a perfect example. If I define myself by my net worth, I have reduced my value to a standard commodity (money) and therefore the only differentiation between you and me is the comparative ranking I have with other commodity holders. I have more or less than someone else. There is no uniqueness in this measure. All of the peculiar qualities that make up who I am are squeezed into the box of present financial value and consequently erased from the record.
If the industry I serve uses net worth as its measure of client acceptability, doesnâ€™t that entail that I reduce all of my clients to forced ranked commodities? Doesnâ€™t that imply that the purpose of my service to them is nothing more than enhancing their ranking? Commodity treatment of client value ultimately obliterates significance â€” and it is significance, not success, that creates true humanity. Are the lives of Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela determined by net worth success or by factors that escape net worth detection?
Reflective business asks me to consider the ethical implications of commodity measures. It might not be net worth. It might be sales per man-hour or inventory per day or loan default rates. The questions to ask are: Does this kind of thinking encourage or discourage respect for the individual? Does it encourage or discourage actions of significance? Does it stretch my involvement with humanity or shrink my appreciation for human complexity?
These are not trivial inquiries. They cannot be ignored under the banner of â€œItâ€™s only business.â€ Business is ultimately a reflection of what we think about life. How we conduct business is finally a measure of who we think we are. Think of the number of times that you are treated as a commodity. The times when you are nothing more than the next number in the pull-tab line. The times when you are only the next one in a telephone service queue or the line at the bank. The times when you are categorized by your clothes or your car or your neighborhood or your watch. Commodity measurements simply do not capture who we really are. And businesses that operate on the basis of commodity measurements will ultimately be replaced by businesses that recognize the fundamental human need to be uniquely recognized.
So, we have a dilemma. We all know that recognition of our individual uniqueness is what we want. I donâ€™t want to be just one more in the crowd, one more on the list, one more in the client base. I want you to recognize who I am. Not because of my money or my position or my power. I want you to acknowledge me.
Many men are well known but few men are known well.
Thatâ€™s what we want. To be known well. But our marketing demographics systems often stand in opposition of this deep need. And, frankly, we just donâ€™t have the resources or the time to actively engage in the â€œknow wellâ€ process.
The current ethical choices seem incompatible. I can take the time to discover and support the people who are currently below my radar screen and end up with less time to manage the profitable transactions of my acceptable net worth clients; or I can devote the time necessary for the profit-making transactions of my acceptable net worth clients and end up never knowing the people below my artificial client measurements who have genuine life-altering needs.
Neither choice works well. What I need to do is think reflectively, to alter the playing field so that I accomplish both tasks at the same time. I do not need to lower the standard of my concern for others. I need to raise that standard. Where there is genuine human need, I must engage. Engagement means a deeper commitment to human well-being and that transforms me and my business into something clients want. Doing business humanly results in more and better business. But to do that, I need to lower the bar on who counts as a client. I need to find a way to include Alicia in my client base so that my efforts to improve her life fit within the framework of my client demographics. That way I can help her while I am meeting the needs of the business. I need a creative solution that allows both players on the field.
In order to raise the standard and lower the bar at the same time, I need to think outside the commodity box.
Centuries ago a tribal culture incorporated rules into its practices that directly apply to our current dilemma. This culture created the covenant family. The principle behind the covenant family is quite simple yet quite profound. A covenant family is nothing more than a group that agrees to act together on behalf of someone else in order that the entire group can be treated as though it were one individual. The parties in this group enter into a covenant, a binding ethical agreement to pledge themselves to the cause of one other. Their resources become the commodity measurement of the beneficiary. As a result, the worth of the individual grows in proportion to the generosity of the group.
In centuries past, the covenant family was a source of income for members of the tribal culture who had desperate needs but lacked individual resources to meet those needs. Today, the concept of a covenant family can become a mechanism for those who require the skills of professional managers but would never rise above the commodity measurement line.
The most important thing about the concept of a covenant family is that the professional manager can actually create new ethical business by putting this concept to work. Aliciaâ€™s need creates the opportunity to establish a covenant family whose combined resources produce enough net worth to rise above the bar. Therefore, the professional manager can do something significant for someone else without jeopardizing productive time.
If you canâ€™t lower the bar, raise the client.
Business done well â€” business that treats every human being as an opportunity to serve â€” does not require the segregation of profit making and humane giving. It requires thinking outside the dictates of the systems that tell us who matters. If we canâ€™t reach those who are in need because they donâ€™t count by the way we measure, then we must alter their circumstances so that they do count. In the process, we will create a new and better way of doing business well.
The covenant family is only one example of altering the playing field by thinking upside down. The covenant family concept attacks the problem by raising the client instead of lowering the bar. It creates a new client where no client existed. This is reflective business â€” the power to rethink how business is done by redrawing the lines. This is the challenge today. No business will survive without reflection, without a willingness to redesign how to serve. Itâ€™s just a matter of perspective.