Integrative Business: Executive Bill George on Reestablishing Trust with the 99 Percent

Saturday, October 26, 2013 - 5:50am

Integrative Business: Executive Bill George on Reestablishing Trust with the 99 Percent

Trust. Fairness. Relationship. Ethics. Oftentimes these words are brandished like weapons when we discuss the financial meltdown of 2008. And, to some degree, former Medtronic CEO Bill George says, people are right to be suspicious. In his conversation with our host Krista Tippett, he says that it's incumbent upon leaders of finance and business to restore that trust:

"We can spend 10, 20, 30 years building a trust with our customers. And we can lose it all in 30 minutes. That's what happened in 2008. That trust, like the balloon, the air went out of the balloon. And that trust was lost. And we've got another 10 years to build it. But it's gotta start now."

But how do these titans of industry do so in a world in which the bottom line is rewarded so richly with compensation and promotion? Mr. George argues that it's rooted in leadership, in the daily rigor of reminding one's executives and employees that success is achieved when the customer that the business serves (not the stockholder or the employee) becomes successful:

The real ethic of a financial institution is to put your customers' needs first, and that's where all ethics and values start from. And there's not been enough dialogue about that inside. In some institutions, it's starting, but it needs to be reinforced all the time, every day. And if we can do that, then the culture will gradually change. It will not change overnight because there's still a lot of money in the culture, and a lot of complexity. But I think it can change, steadily, and that's where the trust is gonna have to come from the financial institutions out to customers. Not from the reverse. We can't expect the customers to establish trust unless it comes from the institutions.

In many ways, Mr. George's ideas seem like basic business practices. But why does it seem so difficult? Take a listen to this exchange and offer your thoughts. I'd be really interested to know how you, as a employee or a business person, find ways to carry this out in your daily work life and relationships with customers.


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Trent Gilliss

is the cofounder of On Being / KTPP and currently serves as chief content officer and executive editor. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on "The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi" and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent's reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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Indeed. Excellent points. I ask, why hasn't anything been done? Greed trumps human beings , our brothers and sisters. Incredubility at the lack of knowledge and aspirations in human nature--we can take care of one another. Thank you for your post. Love and respect towards ourselves and one another shall go along way to change our culture.

Thanks for this interesting insight on business. It's clear that today business as an institution is the most effective way to generate personal wealth for the people of the world. Mr. George makes this point while also representing the responsibility of business to serve others. As a culture we have confused the end with the means, making personal wealth the end while service to others has sadly become a second thought in too many board rooms and corner offices.

I once worked in a large (global) high tech corporation where these values toward customers were the norm. Occasionally we were allowed to transcend the grueling path toward profit-or-else and work toward customer success. Indeed, it was also a different era on Wall St. We actually had real relationships with the analysts on the Street. It has changed dramatically and it now surprises me that the former CEO of Medtronic is espousing similar ethics and values in the 21st century -- because I also know a lot about Medtronic and its global reach across the health care sector. For example their medical devices, which truly make LIFE with type-1 diabetes possible, are generally only available to those with extraordinary means to pay in this terribly depressed economy. To work around this, the customer/patient must jump high hurdles and, essentially, beg for a sort of "charitable" gesture from Medtronic and/or many similar corporations. In the world of health care, and its suppliers such as Medtronic, "success of the customer" should be modified to "success of the customer with a lot of money." For those who really have a need to survive with products that Medtronic offers, the door is closed unless the patient has money. The former CEO of Medtronic would know all this since the corporation is a very big player in the health care sector. CEO's make it their business to understand the full landscape within which they market their products, including: who has money, who does not, and the type of political presence to have in D.C. to influence legislation. So while it is of course refreshing to read about Mr. George's values and ethics, as someone on the front lines of healthcare delivery and healthcare policy, his message does not match my everyday experience in the gritty world of the marginalized.

As a former small business owner and former manager in one of the companies Mr. George helped lead, I fear big business in general, and the finance industry in particular, is irretrievably broken. This is not on a commentary on his past leadership, which I think did exemplify the business ethics he talks about.

It was once my job to craft messages like the ones he espouses here, and I could do it as long as I thought they were true. But some time in the past couple decades they stopped being the reality across America.

Love of money, not customers, drives business growth at the top today, which is more about buying up/driving out competition and fiercely reducing costs than it is about delighting customers with superior products and great value.

To hope the culture change will come from the financial industry or from large public companies is laughable, and not in a funny way, I'm afraid.

Trent Gilliss's picture

Charlie, thank you for saying this. Many others share your perspective here. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's words resonate with me as I think through the challenges: "Some are guilty. All are responsible."

I have known some Medtronic execs, and Mr. George's influence is seen in their sense of mission in what they do. I like his willingness to straddle the worlds of bare-fisted commerce and society-building. The more people willing to stand in both worlds, the better off we will be.

Trent Gilliss's picture

Nicely stated, Kevin.