Monday, June 12, 2006

Applying conclusions backed up by factual findings also characterizes Profit With Honor: The New Stage of Market Capitalism by Daniel Yankelovich. Though his name might be most familiar as a pollster, he has also been involved in public policy (as chair of Public Agenda) and education (Viewpoint Learning) as well as serving on boards of corporations in various industries.

He begins with recent business scandals, and the inadequacy of new regulations and enforcement. We need “normative climate that encourages compliance with laws and regulations,” and “History shows you cannot fight bad norms solely with laws.”

But even beyond illegal activity, he argues, the so-called magic of the marketplace won’t produce ethical results to benefit society. History also shows that market economies “vary from era to era and from culture to culture. Their inherent nature is far less clear-cut than either their advocates or their opponents presuppose.”

In the second half of this relatively short book, Yankelovich describes his vision of “stewardship ethics” and how in practical terms they might work, for the benefit of society and individual businesses, and their stockholders. The vision of businesses operating from an attitude of stewardship, looking for the long-term benefit of society and the corporation, is in some ways radical, yet it is a practical way to respond to many problems of present and near-future reality that both societies and businesses will necessarily face, including the major challenges of energy and environment.

“The most creative challenge of stewardship ethics is to learn how to make profitability and society’s interest more compatible.” That’s saying a mouthful, and there will be many skeptics on all sides of these issues. But if this is the culmination of Yankelovich’s work, it could be a valuable legacy. He believes such a pervasive change in operational attitude must come from CEOs, and he’s using a lifetime of credibility to make his case. It is an act of courage, and that, along with that credibility and his career, means this book deserves a hearing. But then, just the merits of the case he builds in this book call for serious attention. Something like stewardship ethics may well be required not only for a better future, but to prevent a far worse one.

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