MLKquotePEOPLE are sometimes puzzled by this concept of “deep values” in the for-profit world.  Partly that stems from an overlap with the idea of altruism.

Altruism is the idea of putting others’ needs ahead of your own, being able to give without expectation of return.  We do this all the time in our families:  You’ll help out others just because of the close relationship, not because you expect something back.  Well, not exactly true – you expect a certain amount of reciprocation, or trust and closeness will degrade over time.  But that’s not very specific.

And in the case of the commitment to your spouse or kids, you’ll give and give and give.

When we extend this concept to organizations, we look to charities and other non-profits to exhibit altruism.  That’s why we give to them, because there’s a general belief that it’s good to help people and promote causes.  All you get back in return is a sense of belonging, and the satisfaction of playing an active role in building the kind of world you’d like to live in.

How does this extend to for-profit companies?  That’s where people can get confused.  After all, those companies are about making money, right?  Showing a profit?

This is where nuance plays an important role.  Let’s compare a couple of businesses:

Company A

Company B

“We make a profit because we consistently deliver valued products to our customers.” “We make a profit so that we can consistently deliver valued products to our customers.”

See the difference?  For Company A, profit is the overall desired result, and the products are the means to achieve that.  For Company B, the product delivery is the desired result, and profit is necessary in order to be able to do that.

Company B has placed its product delivery above profit.

In real life, businesses don’t often state objectives this clearly, and it can be hard to figure out the balance.  But companies with deep values will often be much clearer.  They have to be, because they’re bucking the expectations of the industry.

How would you tell?  Let’s go back to our two examples.  Imagine that something happened (a global recession, for example) in which it became impossible to achieve both objectives.  How does the company behave?

Company A: It finds something else it can do to make its profit.  Perhaps it sacrifices some of those words describing the products – it becomes inconsistent, the products aren’t valued so much anymore, and it loses sight of its customers.

Company B: It finds other ways to stay alive so that it can continue to deliver those great products.  It lets profit dip negative and taps other financial resources.  Perhaps it goes after funding from outside the company.

As we all know, someone’s character isn’t really known until they’re tested by stress.  Well, the same is true of companies.

The good news is that you can do this as a mental exercise, and you don’t have to wait for a huge crisis.  That’s what disaster planning and stress testing is all about.  The banking industry has been using stress testing for the last few years to answer:  What would happen, and how would we behave, if we were hit with another financial crisis?  Whether or not you like the answers they came up with, it was a useful exercise and shows a lot about the character of those companies.

If you want to have deep values for your business, then I’ll be able to know when I see how you’ve protected them above everything else.  And you can show me how profit is just a stepping-stone which helps you reach those higher goals.