'We Do Business for Profit'

The issue of business ethics has come up in my conversations quite a lot recently. It being the end of the year, I've been finishing projects for some clients and scoping upcoming work for others. Because of the role I fill for most of them, that means doing a little consulting about organizational change and corporate goals alongside the projects of the day.

In the course of these chats, I often hearken back to lessons from a former employer. One of the most meaningful was summed up eloquently in the beginning of the company's mission statement:

"We do business for profit. First yours. Then ours. ..."

That's not altruistic. It's simply factual. We did, indeed, do business for profit. We weren't working for free or from the goodness of our hearts. However, we also understood a deceptively simple concept, which was that guiding and advising our clients to make decisions that were good for the health of their businesses earned trust. That, in turn, drove the health of our own business.

What did it look like in a practical sense? We told clients if we thought a decision wouldn't generate a positive return on their investment. We looked at how best to help clients achieve their goals while saving money. We looked for efficiencies in our own processes and helped clients rework theirs to find even more efficiencies. We made things right if we goofed up. And we involved our clients in our charitable efforts.

Let me be clear: It was not utopia. The difficult aspects were similar to those in any business. But the transparency in running the company (in nearly every situation) created an entire staff of people who understood more than a little about corporate finance and held a high ethical standard for the treatment of coworkers, collaborators, and clients. Perhaps that's why so many have gone on to successful solo careers, entrepreneurial ventures, and leadership in a wide variety of organizations ... and why so many of us jump at the chance to work together even now.

The first time I was introduced to the mission statement, I so appreciated the way it put priorities in the order that felt right to me. Even now, this is the way I work. I prefer to be straightforward with a client and recommend a less-expensive, more effective approach, even though it means I might receive modest payment for the job. Why? Because it's just the right thing to do.

Whether I build a longstanding relationship with the client or simply earn a reputation as someone who works ethically, as long as I put my clients' interests (or, in the case of agencies, their clients' interests) first, I go to sleep at night feeling just fine about my efforts.

That's a lesson I think we can all take to the bank.