It’s fair to say many, if not most, private sector CEOs over the age of 50 firmly embrace “traditional capitalism” – equal parts American Dream, ever-higher profits, low or no taxes, and "kill or be eaten."
Case in point: a few years ago I was coaching a potential successor to the CEO of a Fortune 50 company. At one point, I asked this baby boomer how he’d like to be remembered after he’s gone (a typical legacy question) and he replied, “That I ran a profitable company.” Pressing deeper, I asked, “That you ran a profitable company … for the sake of what?” He stared blankly at me, paused, and said, “I don’t understand the question.”
This profitability-for-its-own-sake model has resulted in such billboard favorites as an unprecedented concentration of wealth, increased domestic poverty, rampant paralysis in Washington, two wars, three rapid fire economic collapses (internet bubble, housing bubble, and Wall Street-on-steroids bubble,) sky high health care costs, and, to put a bow on it, trillions in national debt “gifted” to the next generations.
On a more recent engagement, having had a post-boomer executive coaching client named as a new CEO, I have been reflecting on the promise of better things to come from this new generation of leaders. I can’t help but find myself rooting for an evolutionary giant step in capitalism.
Building on this idealistic notion, I wanted to share an elaborate and brilliant set of ideas about a kind of “capitalism with care,” to tell these younger leaders what it should look like. Unfortunately, I can’t do that.
I realize that I, like my cohort and forebears, have run out the clock on doing it our way. Given that we’ve hardly distinguished ourselves, it would be the height of hubris to think we have much right to define the next Big Ideas for capitalism’s evolution. Whatever the new rules will bring, if things are to change much beyond Mad Men (minus adult beverages and smoking in the workplace; I’ll give us those two progress points,) it’s going to be up to the next generation of leaders to innovate capitalism itself, if they are so inclined.
As Albert Einstein noted, “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it.” Given that, I hope post-boomer CEOs will transcend the “I win / you lose” mentality that surrounded them during their formative years.
I don’t mean they should starve -- there’s no harm in enjoying the fruits of your labor, and no one can begrudge post-boomers for wanting their own piece of the dream. I don’t. However, I hope they can show us all how to share rewards more broadly, and make them sustainable in exciting new ways.
Provided they rise to this challenge, I’m optimistic that when I ask, “How would you like to be remembered … and for the sake of what?” their answers will transcend profitability’s dead end – forging an open road of capitalism for the common good, one where all may travel, confident that a better future is just ahead.
David N. Peck