Sustainability

When I was in business school 25 years ago, I don't recall the term sustainability used. Maybe it was, but it certainly didn't register in my brain. The mantras that I recall were return on investment, shareholder value, revenue growth, and driving efficiencies in the business.

But as I look at many of the challenges facing businesses today, it seems to me that the focus on performance and efficiency often comes at the cost of sustainability. This talk by Clay Christensen really drives that point home. The recent history of the steel industry in the US is a case study in managers doing everything they were taught in business school and in the end they bankrupt the business.

Going back to business school, they teach you the value of a business is equal to the present value of future cash flows. If the company is likely to stay in business forever, then the value is most likely way higher than a business that is going to be out of business in a decade. The present value of a hundred years of cash flow is likely to be larger than the present value of  ten years of cash flow.

And sustainability is all about figuring out how to be in business forever. It is about business models that are win/win and lead to happy long term customer and supplier relationships. It is about avoiding the temptation to overeach. It is about avoiding the temptation to mazimize near term profits at the expense of long term health. It is about adapting the business to changing market dynamics. It is about building a team and a culture that can survive the loss of the leader and keep going. And it is about many more things like this.

I am tempted to develop a course on this topic. I think we need a lot more of this type of thinking in business. It seems in such short supply these days.