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Growing a culture of generosity can pay dividends down the line.

By Jill Coody Smits


In business, the long view—the one where you keep your eyes on the future and on the world beyond your office door—isn’t always an easy gaze to hold. What with profits to make and salaries to pay, keeping your eyes anywhere but on your wallet and the challenge at hand can feel impossibly idealistic.

But there’s a growing business case to be made for the long view, whether you’re opening a new store, writing a strategic plan, or networking at happy hour. It requires that you renounce short-term thinking, fly your generosity flag, and eschew the “whatever it takes” mentality found in boardrooms big and small. It’s a kinder, gentler way of doing business, and it may be the surest route to the top.


The Tao of Burger Joints

For years, Patrick Terry daydreamed about opening a burger stand, a vision that is still laced with idealism. He says, “I like the idea of a burger, fries, and a milkshake; I like the exchange of that, and think it’s really pleasant.” 

After reading the decidedly unpleasant book Fast Food Nation, Terry and his wife, Kathy, decided to make his dream a reality, but to do it atypically. In 2005, the first P. Terry’s Burger Stand opened on a busy corner in Austin, Texas, with a mission to reinvent the fast-food industry depicted in Eric Schlosser’s 2001 best seller. 

From quality ingredients and fair wages to good customer service and earth-friendly practices, Terry says, “The mantra has always been ‘do the right thing.’ We mumble that to ourselves when making decisions.” Moreover, Terry says his strategy from the outset was “to build something of substance, something that would be around for a long time.”

Nine years later, P. Terry’s is working on its ninth stand. They pay their 300-plus employees well above minimum wage, offer Spanish-speaking employees English lessons, give interest-free emergency loans to help people get into an apartment or a car, and always promote from within. Employee bonuses totaled up to more than $65,000 in December 2013.

In addition to taking good care of employees, P. Terry’s uses all-natural beef and healthy ingredients, recycles all paper and cardboard from the back of the house, and has donated more than $332,000 to local causes. Terry says the stands themselves are designed to be places that make the street nicer for years to come.

All of that investment—in structures, healthy products, employees, and sustainability—is costly. Especially when you consider that their burger goes for $2. Still, Terry says the effort is both essential and worthwhile. There’s gravy, too, in the form of happy customers. 


Make Way for the Commons

As Terry suggests, success doesn’t have to come at the expense of the greater good. In fact, it’s a karmic philosophy that’s seeping into the psyche of future leaders via a surprising source—business school. 

Leo Burke, director of the Global Commons Initiative at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, says all businesspeople should be mindful of the outside world, because “business exists for the good of society, not the other way around.” (Take THAT, Wolf of Wall Street.)

A former Motorola executive, Burke launched the GCI in 2012 with the goal of educating students about the commons “so that they can make better business decisions that contribute to the greater good.” The “commons” in Burke’s initiative are an ancient concept he explains as the “tangible and intangible resources that sustain and enhance life that must be collectively governed by users for the good of current beneficiaries and future generations.”

It sounds like heady stuff, but the commons are just the shared things that make life good for all of us and should be there for us way down the road. There are natural-resource commons like mountains, cultural commons like customs, and even digital commons like the Internet. No one owns them, but we all use and benefit from them, and we are all responsible for them. 

It’s a compelling idea, but why should the commons be integrated into a business school curriculum? Burke makes it sound like a no-brainer. “It’s critical for future leaders to understand that, in addition to the private sector and public sector, there are resources we hold in common, and they need to be protected.”

According to Burke, the market is not yet beginning to demand that perspective, at least not in a mainstream way. However, “people are beginning to understand that if we don’t protect the common good, there won’t be healthy markets.” 

So, what is a well-intentioned company to do? “A very narrowly defined view of business is you grab the input resources at their cheapest and maximize profits by unloading at any cost,” says Burke. A better way, he insists, is to take a hard look at your business and ask whether anyone or anything is being exploited along the way. Do you ship using eco-friendly materials? Are you paying a fair wage? Do you give back to your community in some meaningful way?

Of course, it’s not always simple to factor in the greater good, particularly after a troubling quarterly meeting. But, Burke says even small positive steps are valuable.


Good Guys (and Gals) Finish First

Terry understands the complex decision-making that often goes into doing the right thing. He says there are times when monthly budgets and good intentions collide, “then you step back and tell yourself that you do this 12 months a year, so don’t put this one under the microscope and reevaluate what you think is right.” 

Recycling at P. Terry’s is one example of a complicated and evolving solution. The stores started with recyclable food packaging, then added a dumpster to each location so all materials from the back of the house get recycled. While trash from the front of the house represents a small percentage of the store’s waste, space and logistics issues make recycling it an unresolved but nagging concern. Terry says, “We have an ongoing conversation with ourselves on how to improve, and I’m confident there’ll be a time when we will recycle more.”

These efforts matter, Burke says, and from bond ratings that factor in sustainability practices to customers with high expectations, they will likely have more and more impact on success. It’s a natural progression. Many companies, like Patagonia, are already holding themselves to a higher standard, and they make a profit. Terry says the connection between the “do good” mantra and the success of their burger stands is undeniable. “I get too many customer comments to think otherwise.”


Give a Little, Gain a Lot

Even on an individual scale, there is evidence that generous people are more successful than selfish ones. 

In his book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, Wharton professor Adam Grant contends that most people fall into one of three categories: givers, takers, or matchers. Givers give with no expectation of return, takers are only in it for themselves, and matchers give based on an assumption of reciprocity. 

Motivation, skills, and opportunity being equal, guess who tends to be the most successful? 

While all types can and do succeed, Grant found that givers tend to be especially successful more often, in part because they create a large network of people who happily reciprocate their “no strings attached” generosity. In addition, once you’re known as the helpful guy, people begin “rooting rather than gunning for you,” and new doors begin to open. 

There’s a fine line between “supreme giver” and “doormat,” however, and a pile of givers can be found at the bottom of the ladder. Grant says the key to supremacy is giving in a way that doesn’t compromise your goals and success.

Successful givers tend to be generous with givers and matchers, but cautious of takers. Failed givers respond to everyone, which can result in a “jack of all trades, master of none” problem. A more effective way, Grant says, is to focus giving in a few areas you enjoy and are uniquely qualified for, which makes the giving feel “energizing and efficient rather than distracting and exhausting.”

Do so and—voilà. You’ve just carved out your niche, which means folks won’t come knocking every time they need a random favor. 

Most of us are matchers, however, and Grant says we tit-for-tat masses make a few mistakes. The first is giving off a transactional vibe. (Conversely, givers make favors “feel like an investment in a meaningful relationship.”) The second is that matchers only help people who can pay it back—a shortsighted view of networking.

As for takers, well, they win some and lose some, but they’re bad for business. “When you get groups of employees willing to give, you have more innovation from shared knowledge,” Grant says. 

Leaders can encourage a giving culture by engaging in giving behaviors themselves. Things like putting organizational interests first (i.e., the corporate jet is not a personal chauffeur), sharing knowledge, and providing feedback have a way of trickling down. 

Operating with the greater good in mind may not always be easy, but research suggests it can be a winning business strategy. So do successful business owners. “Once the philosophy gets implemented, it takes on a life of its own,” Terry says. “You connect with a high caliber of people, and it’s all just working in tandem.”

Who knows, if you do it right, you may just give your way into giving a Giving Pledge. 


Jill Coody Smits is an Austin, Texas–based journalist. Find her online at blueseedcommunications.com.


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