Written by Charles Wookey, CEO A Blueprint for Better Business
Last month I went to the USA for a week. I was there to give a presentation at a University in Minnesota, and then had a series of meetings in Boston and New York with people who had expressed interest in A Blueprint for Better Business. I was very curious to understand the cultural differences and explore how what we are up to here might ‘land’ there.
My first answer came pretty much immediately at the US immigration desk at the airport. The conversation went something like this:
Border Guard (BG): What’s the purpose of your visit to the USA?
BG: What is your business?
Me: I run a charity
BG: What’s the charity for?
Me: We work with business, to help them think more about how they treat people rather than just about making more money
BG: Seriously? What kind of charity is that? Are you a consultancy then?
Me: No, we don’t take money from business
BG: That’s weird. So what do you get them to change? Is it how the bosses behave?
Me: Yes, that’s part of it
BG: (quietly) Well we could do with a bit of that here…have a good trip
And with a languid wave, he ushered me through. It was an immediate reminder that the kind of organisation we run – which is unusual enough here – didn’t compute.
At the university, I was giving a talk about our work and its background (it is here if you are interested). In one of the conference discussions, there was a conversation about the word “capitalism”. I said that I’d been advised not to use the word in our work – by Peter Sutherland – who was at the time London based chairman of Goldman Sachs International. Peter said that we didn’t need the word, and by not using it we escaped having an ideological argument which using the word always risks.
In Europe, this strategy makes perfect sense. Initiatives (and there are many) that have the word “capitalism” in their title by definition tend to have to qualify the word in one way or another to address an implicit criticism.
But in the US everyone talks about capitalism as uncontroversial. It’s like using the word “society”. Pretty much everyone I spoke to seemed comfortable using the word, and with the idea that America was a capitalist society. So what does it mean to you? I asked. One business leader replied: “Charles, it just means you are not a communist. If you use the word capitalism, it permits you to be heard. If you don’t use it or are uncomfortable, that gets picked up, and you get typecast. Don’t worry about the word. Get over it.”
I also very aware how language is used to distinguish between businesses and NGOs. The categorisation of “for-profit” and “not-for-profit” is clear and elegant, but it does subliminally reinforce the dominant Friedmanite view that the purpose of business is “for profit”. I was struck by how this contrast underlines the way in which financial considerations loom large in US culture.
On a fleeting visit, it’s only possible to skim the surface and dwell on fragmentary glimpses. I was struck by how different capitalism in Boston and New York was, and those I met in both places reinforced how different again each felt the culture of the Valley was. It has often been said that the UK and USA are divided by a common language. It certainly felt that our work on purpose and people will not find an easy hearing in some places. But equally that with appropriate translation there are opportunities to connect different traditions and ways of thinking in service of both better business and a better society.