Business executives who focus only on profit are missing the point, a consultant on leadership said Tuesday in Omaha.
Calling business “the most powerful institution in the world,” Cleve W. Stevens, president of Owl Sight Intentions Inc. of Irvine, Calif., said that for capitalism to survive, its leaders must focus on improving people and not simply making money.
“Business is a human endeavor,” Stevens told a breakfast meeting of the Omaha Business Ethics Alliance, attended by about 175 people at the Holland Performing Arts Center.
Socialism has lost the contest to be the world's dominant economic system, he told The World-Herald after the meeting, and capitalism has won, but free enterprise that forgets about people in the pursuit of profit cannot fulfill its potential.
Leaders who focus on developing their employees can transform their businesses into new organizations that are more successful, Stevens said. Profit then becomes a measure of that success rather than the goal.
“Transformative” leaders begin by imagining a world that does not exist but is better than the world today, he said. “If you like the outcome, then you pull back and decide how to get there,” and the vital steps include developing people willing and able to take that journey.
It may be obvious, Stevens said, but happy people are more productive in their jobs, and people are happiest when they love the workplace and are loved there; when they are growing and developing; when they are contributing to the business; and when their work has meaning or purpose.
When people work under those four conditions, “they're ready to go,” said Stevens, who wrote a book on leadership titled “The Best in Us: People, Profit and the Remaking of Modern Leadership,” published by Beaufort Books.
Stevens was asked how to improve a business like Kiewit Corp., which the questioner said already is one of the country's top construction companies. Stevens said even great companies can do things better, and outstanding companies usually pursue improvement.
“I'll send you a list of my problems,” quipped Kiewit CEO Bruce Grewcock, who also is chairman of the ethics group.
Stevens said the biggest obstacle to developing transformative leadership is usually executives' unwillingness to closely and honestly look at themselves. It's not easy, he said, but it's essential to beginning the process of improving the company.
Businesses also find that community involvement by their people is important not only for the company but also for the individuals who do the volunteer work, he said, because it helps them become better on the job, as parents and in other aspects of their lives.
Correction: The title of Cleve W. Stevens' book was incorrect in a previous version of this story.