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Conscious capitalism: how to make the most of the kindness in business

Seeking higher consciousness in the heart of capitalism. Byron Barrett, CC BY-ND

When companies start to struggle, some people hope that the idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR) can help CEOs understand themselves and learn to adapt, but too often that is engulfed by traditional ways of running a company. Better to look at how we can create an organisation which runs along entirely different lines.

There exists a model which can help. John Mackey, the founder of organic food retailer Whole Foods Market has promoted the idea of “Conscious Capitalism”. On one level it represents an ideal of benevolence and goodness, and has been the starting point for those wanting to build the idea of a conscious business, where values (and CSR guidelines) define business interactions and act as an antidote to greed, corruption and social irresponsibility.

The Conscious Business Institute defines Conscious Business here:

[It] is about people who are aware of the impact their habits and actions have on their organisation and their environment … Conscious Businesses require authentic leaders that do not exercise dominance and control to reach a goal, but who are of service to the business, its people, its customers and the community.

Beyond CSR

However, Mackey’s original book went deeper and further than just CSR. Conscious Capitalism was about being awake to the consequences of business action. It was about heightening awareness of how a company operates itself, as well as how it senses and responds to the external environment. Problems like those we have seen in the banking sector, and perhaps at the troubled retail giant Tesco, might be addressed with an approach that took this into account.

This deeper definition of conscious business takes a more literal approach. A business can be more or less “conscious”. Consciousness can be viewed along a number of different dimensions. Take Fred Kofman’s, quotes from the Ayn-Rand-acolyte Nathaniel Branden, who died earlier this month and whose broad view of consciousness went beyond this simplistic “good and kind” definition used by so many:

Living consciously is a state of being mentally active rather than passive. It is the ability to look at the world through fresh eyes. It is intelligence taking joy in its own function. Living consciously is seeking to be aware of everything that bears on our interests, actions, values, purposes and goals. It is the willingness to confront facts, pleasant or unpleasant. It is the desire to discover our mistakes and correct them … It is the quest to keep expanding our awareness and understanding, both of the world external to self and of the world within.

Running the show

So much for theory and the grand themes. Let’s imagine that Dave Lewis, the new boss of Tesco, wants to do more than tick the CSR box in his annual report and actually apply the practice of conscious business. Well, there are companies organised along more democratic lines and who operate using open and enquiry-based methods rather than top down, solution-based ways of working. Firms like Nixon-McInnes and Propellernet in the UK are demonstrating new ways of being successful.

Nixon McInnes, voted one of the world’s most democratic companies underlines the importance of creating responsive, enquiry-based relationships with clients, rather than the take-what-you-get traditional delivery-based model. It isn’t what we want to sell them, it is what they need. One process (called, rather strangely “SPIN” by Nixon McInnes founder, Tom Nixon), aims to arrive at a genuinely open conversation between customer and supplier, ferreting out the problems that the customer is really trying to solve. So, a conscious business attempts to raise its awareness of its customers by banishing traditional selling in favour of “sensing” and “responding”.

Propellernet, meanwhile, tries to raise the awareness and “authority” of their clients. The motto goes:

We help our clients to become genuine authorities in their chosen markets.

It becomes more about dialogue than delivery. Propellernet have experienced rapid growth through their much more real-time, responsive approach to clients, seeing the customer relationship more as an ongoing dialogue than the discrete delivery of products or services. This dialogue continues internally, on an ongoing basis. Voted as one of the best places to work in 2014, a culture of openness and transparency is key. Quality of working life, and a democratic approach encourage staff to challenge mediocrity and constructively disrupt the status quo. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the foreign exchange departments of some of the world’s major banks could have done with a bit of this.

Feeling part of the decision-making process as well as feeling safe to challenge are keys to a business remaining conscious. Of course, in both cases there are still dynamics that can create tension and difficulty around ownership, politics and commercial pressures. Both Propellernet and Nixon McInnes would see conscious businesses an an aspiration rather than an arrival point. In a way conscious business is not an end state but an everyday enquiry into how business is conducted.


It might seem fairly simple, but it is actually represents a u-turn in how many companies operate. The idea is that a conscious business moves away from “advocacy” alone. Advocacy is what we put out, what we deliver, what we decide and what we say. On the other hand, “enquiry” is a state of ongoing responsiveness, curiosity, questioning and openness.

Conscious businesses are more conscious because their core business process is a real time readiness to sense, enquire and respond. This is more successful when both the internal and external environment are changing rapidly. We become more agile because we are enquiring all the time. Action becomes simultaneous to that enquiry, it doesn’t happen “after the fact”. (So, we decide and enquire at the same time). Simply put, a conscious business is highly responsive and able to improvise – a worthy goal for any CEO, in retail, in banking or any other sector.

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