Facts and data are not what convinces CEOs to make systemic change

Let’s not keep going down the same road.
Let’s not keep going down the same road.
Image: REUTERS/Eric Thayer
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In a 2019 opinion piece published in the New York Times, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff called for a “new capitalism” and counseled business leaders to look at the facts: “Research shows that companies that embrace a broader mission—and, importantly, integrate that purpose into their corporate culture—outperform their peers, grow faster, and deliver higher profits,” he wrote.

Benioff ’s intentions are good, but there’s a problem with his advice: Facts rarely, if ever, influence the actions or priorities of a leader wired for a different reality. Data may help break through what one of our fellows called the “mud layer of middle management,” but it rarely resets the intentions of key decision makers.

In fact, after decades of experimentation, perhaps we should question whether ubiquitous metrics-based ratings and rankings of companies across industries are actually doing anything useful when it comes to changing behavior below the surface.

The architecture of systemic change is built through direct and meaningful experience, not metrics. Take, for example, the decision of CVS to stop selling cigarettes. It emerged from a fresh look at the fundamental purpose of the enterprise. Did their stores enable health and well-being, or not? Delta Air Lines’ progressive profit-sharing plan was born of deep crisis and the prospect of total failure; in order to emerge from bankruptcy in 2007 able to build a better future, the company needed to enlist everyone involved—and find a way to motivate pilots and everyone else who had to absorb significant pay cuts.

We can look to a meaningful number of customer service enterprises, including Panera Bread, Costco, Market Basket, QuikTrip, the Container Store, Starbucks, and Southwest, who have broken with convention to offer higher pay and benefits and who respect workers as the heart of the business plan. Data and examples reinforced the business model; they were not the impetus.

Chip and Dan Heath, in their best-selling book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, describe this phenomenon as the difference between the actions of the elephant and its rider. The rider is operating from reason; he has the knowledge and the plan. The elephant is all instinct and emotion. It might be hungry, tired, or fearful. It stops along the way or may suddenly change direction or refuse to stop. Moving along the path of change requires both the rider’s plan and the momentum of the elephant. Getting started on the path, however, is more about the instincts of the elephant brain than the reasoning of the rider brain.

The wake-up call to the CEO comes with a swift kick in the rear from an aggressive campaign, or an encounter with an employee in the cafeteria or parking lot, or a provocative question at the all-hands or from his kid at the kitchen table. These personal experiences take executives to the heart of the matter; they enable change in how he or she perceives and calculates value—they have the power to change what one believes.

Excerpted and adapted from “The Six New Rules of Business: Creating Real Value in a Changing World” by Judy Samuelson. Copyright 2020. Reprinted with permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Judy Samuelson is executive director and founder of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program, and author of “The Six New Rules of Business: Creating Real Value in a Changing World.”