Intentions in Business

I have been giving a lot of thought recently to the role of intentions in business. I believe they are one of the keys to our long-term success.  Most companies are started with an intention to deliver something better or to solve a problem that has not been solved.  As they deliver value, they get more customers. As value goes up, so typically does their revenue.

Over time, the intentions of individuals and organizations may change, sometimes consciously and sometimes not. I worked for a company many years ago that actually was a game changer in the industry. They found ways to apply technology and reach to become a nationwide force in what was and remains a very fragmented industry. Then they made the front page of the Wall Street Journal as one of the best performing stocks on the NASDAQ over the previous decade.

The intentions changed at that point and it became more important to be a high performing stock than a high performing company. Six years later the company was sold at a fraction of its previous value.

A confluence of recent conversations gave me some insight into this.

I have been following a writer for some time now by the name of Charles Green. He is author of the blog Trust Matters and co-Author of the book Trusted Advisor. One of the key points I gleaned from the book was that, with Trust business moves more effectively, and delivers greater value. Remember, more value typically means more revenue. A key element in the Trust equation is the degree of self-orientation the advisor has. The more that the advisor is motivated by their own interests the more trust is impacted negatively.

I have also recently have read Daniel Pinks book, Drive. It speaks about what really motivates us. We often, mistakenly it turns out, think it is incentives like more cash, more rewards. In fact, studies over the last 40 years point out that incentives can have a negative effect on our performance particularly when the task involves higher cognitive effort. It turns out that one of the three biggest motivators for us is work in service to a higher purpose.

Then while working out the other day I listened to a TED presenter Nancy Etcoff talking about the science of Happiness. She makes an interesting observation. She says,

 “We are social beings from the beginning. In addition, even studies of cooperation show that cooperation between individuals lights up reward centers of the brain. One problem that psychology has had is…, is that they focus instead on the self, and self-esteem, and not self-other; it’s sort of “me,” not “we.” And, I think this has been a really tremendous problem. It goes against our biology and nature. It hasn’t made us any happier at all.”

As I heard that, the various pieces of the puzzle in my own mind fell into place. We are most successful in business when our focus is on delivering value. And, this is subtle; it has to be about delivering value in service. (Yes, we have to earn a profit but if that is the intention then value delivery can be diluted).

Daniel Pink presents us with good research that demonstrates we are more motivated about our work when, among other things, we are serving a higher purpose.

Nancy Etcoff shares with us that at a biological level we are wired to be social; that is to say, we are happiest when we are serving others versus serving ourselves.

Charles Green presents us with the Trust Equation and the way that our orientation towards self vs. other (intentions) affects the Trust in the relationship.

So what does this all mean to you?

For me it is a reminder to keep focused on the bigger picture and how can I be in service to my organization and my customers. It’s more fun and at the end of the day I am convinced it delivers better results to all concerned.

Take Good Care,


  1. John,

    I applaud your insight in connecting those dots. It’s not easy to think in that way. I think those dots do fit together, and very much in the way you have stated. (By the way, I’m very proud to be included in that company).

    One one-liner that captures a lot (not all) of what you’re saying is, “To say that the purpose of a company is to make a profit is like saying that the purpose of living is to eat.”

    It’s that kind of confusion that has come to plague us these days. You’re right to point out Pink’s observation that we’re motivated by more than rats with cheese, and Etcoff’s that we are not just self-serving rational utility-maximizers. To all that, I’d add also that we tend to find meaning in creating organizations that serve others.

    Very little of that is found in what has become the orthodox interpretation of capitalism, and we’re the poorer for it. Thanks for doing your bit to make more sense of it.

  2. Thanks for a thought provoking post. I do believe that most people are by nature, service oriented. It shows in our “service clubs”, in the way we support our churches, and in the way we support those in need during natural disasters.

    I think this same thought process converts easily into business and where many companies miss the boat is that they focus on the product or the profit and not on the service. Yet when I have a product that goes bad, I tend to be very forgiving as long as the service is good. But when the service is bad we tend to be not nearly as thoughtful.

    Service, as you so aptly pointed out, is the key.

  3. Charlie,

    Thanks for your comments and insight. As is usual you add another dimension to the conversation.

    What is really exciting to me is that (and maybe it’s because I am looking) I see more and more evidence that people are beginning to rethink the old model of capitalism and realize the power for positive change that is available through our businesses. As adults we spend most of our waking hours working. Instead of relying on government to instigate change business leaders can be more powerful, quicker to respond and in many cases more effective in helping the stakeholders (citizens, communities, suppliers, employees, etc.

    Take Good Care

  4. Dave,

    I agree. Your mention of service clubs is appropriate. Somehow we have gotten our philosophies confused to the point where the system no longer supports our original intent… to serve. We think it is all about he money, or the options, or the power, or some other metric.

    And yet at the end of the day when we serve our customers and other stakeholders not only does everyone win, they tend to win in bigger ways.

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