Consultant Nikos Mourkogiannis on the Need for Discovery, Excellence, and Altruism in Corporate AmericaPublished: January 10, 2007 in Knowledge@Emory
In the new book Purpose: The Starting Point of Great Companies, author Nikos Mourkogiannis contends that Corporate America needs to rethink its strategic approach to business. Instead, inspiration and a sense of purpose should be the driving forces behind a company, he argues. Mourkogiannis is a senior partner at Panthea, a global consulting firm advising chairmen and CEOs on leadership. In his book, he points to novel business discoveries, such as the achievements of IBM, and to the standout leaders in the field, firms like Berkshire Hathaway, to illustrate the principles behind purpose and how that impetus can propel success. In a recent interview with Knowledge@Emory, Mourkogiannis expounds on the role of purpose in business and how today’s business leaders can tap into this energy.
Knowledge@Emory: Can you think of one moment or encounter that led to the ideas behind Purpose?
Mourkogiannis: It was 1989, and it was the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was raised and educated to fight the Cold War, since the Communists had swept through my village in Greece. Back then, I remembered that there were only two kinds of people in my generation—those who went to Wall Street and those who were thinking about the Russians and the Communists. And, at that point, I thought that business was for lesser people, and not for those with noble interests at heart. But with the Cold War won, I lost my purpose. I realized that the war had been won, but the new world had not yet been created. Slowly, after coming to the U.S, going to business school here, and as I got into business, I realized what I needed to fight was materialism, the disregard for ideas, and the lack of classical idealism. I saw this in business as much as I saw it in my old enemies.
Knowledge@Emory: So, what was the genesis of the actual book?
Mourkogiannis: I came up with the concept because of the misappropriation of the word “strategy” by microeconomists. I realized that this is really all about purpose, especially after I read Tom Peters’s famous book In Search of Excellence, and his comments on purpose and how value derives from purpose.
Knowledge@Emory: If you had to define purpose for business leaders, could you boil it down into a sentence or phrase to make it clear to our readers?
Mourkogiannis: There is a famous French phrase—Raison d'être. Basically, it means the purpose to exist. Another way you can say it is that purpose is the invisible hand that guides the firm.
Knowledge@Emory: Your book seems very timely, especially as we look to put Enron and the many publicized business scandals in the past. Now, there is concern over large payouts to chief executives, especially when the top exec is either leaving the firm or the firm is ailing. Much of this speaks to the short-term thinking on Wall Street and what that creates. How do we get the leadership on board to think about purpose and the long-range perspective needed for this sort of approach?
Mourkogiannis: In the last thirty years or so, I’ve been invested in this idea of competitive advantage. Company leaders hear that their job is to “get competitive.” So, the thinking has moved to commoditizing everything. We’ve even placed a value on people—human capital. Even when we talk about ethics, Americans felt the need to talk about values. The word value is supposed to be the proxy for ethics, but that word can also have a financial connotation. But I don’t want to be overly pessimistic either, as we are doing better than we think. The emphasis on what is or what is not appropriate leadership is a great sign of progress. Look at Jack Welch and how he charged his divorce settlement to GE—that’s not seen as a good thing today. Five years ago, it might have been considered natural. Many people are uncomfortable with this sort of behavior, so as a society we are raising the bar simply by asking “why.”
Knowledge@Emory: You talk about the way people idolize business leaders today. When they fail, it’s almost as if they have fallen off a pedestal. Why do we have this idea of the charismatic and all-knowing CEO? It seems as if a part of this thinking leads to the ability of the chief executive to do whatever they please to some degree.
Mourkogiannis: First off, it’s much easier for business journalists to write a story about the charismatic person. So, that’s part of it. Also, there’s a very superficial understanding of leadership. I know of no leader who isn’t a part of a team. Leadership is absolutely a team sport. If you read Alexander the Great, you can see he was doing well when he used his team. But when he didn’t, he died because of it. The emphasis on CEO is not as big in Europe. There is certainly something about hero worship here in the U.S.—the man who captures the West—and that idea has been transposed on to the CEO.
Knowledge@Emory: Certainly Warren Buffet is one of those larger than life individuals, yet he escapes the “rock star” CEO image purposefully. In the book, you refer to Warren Buffet as an example of someone who succeeds by standing out heads and shoulders above everyone in his field. He doesn’t deviate from his path and his plan. He also practices something else that you argue for—large-scale philanthropy. Why do you think he is so successful?
Mourkogiannis: Warren Buffet is concerned about who are the “right” fellows out there. As Warren Buffet buys companies, he really wants to bond with the CEO and the owner of the company. And, with his philanthropy, he wants to give his money to the right people, as well. There isn’t a coincidence about these two things and his success. For someone like him, with his moral purpose, he has even made sure to make a key decision in giving his money to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Knowledge@Emory: I am sure people paid attention to the section in the book on altruism and how Wal-Mart used to be an example of this. Wal-Mart seems to be the antithesis of altruism these days, considering concerns over worker treatment. But you mention founder Sam Walton’s commitment to the consumer and the company’s mission to bring inexpensive products to the customer. What is the next step for a company like Wal-Mart? Are they lost without Sam Walton?
Mourkogiannis: When I shopped the book to publishers, nothing gave me more trouble than the Wal-Mart case. But, in the end, I decided to leave it in. What I am arguing is that their failure today is that they have deviated from their original mission. Sam Walton had more of a commitment to his employees.
Knowledge@Emory: In the book you mention Braun, the razor and small electrical appliance manufacturer. It seems many companies go astray when mergers and acquisitions happen. You note the double-whammy that Braun experienced, as they had to survive the leaner and meaner M&A fervor, in addition to dealing with competitors manufacturing items for a cheaper price abroad. Of course, shareholder pressure is constantly bearing down on American business, as well. This dynamic isn’t new, but it is ever increasing. How do you deal with the many constraints on modern business?
Mourkogiannis: Certainly, I don’t think business by itself can make the changes needed. We need a sense of structure to address the needs—needs that the markets simply can’t or won’t provide—just like government can’t handle the space program on its own without business.
Knowledge@Emory: You break the book down into key points that play into purpose—discovery, excellence, altruism and heroism. You also note that this is pretty much unconventional thinking in Corporate America today. Are there many unconventional thinkers out there? Or, are they a dying breed?
Mourkogiannis: There’s Steve Jobs, of course, at Apple, with the personal computer and the iPod, as an example. Bill Gates belongs in that group, and Henry Ford before him. But, that’s the oxymoron of innovation. Innovation becomes harder every day. This kind of leadership will certainly become much harder to exercise.