Conscience for Hire
The job title might sound a little kooky, but the rationale behind it is sound. We need more ethics and integrity integrated into businesses today.
Image credit: School of Athens by Raphael, 1510. Fresco, Vatican City (Wikimedia Commons)
Who's the corporate conscience of a company?
That question sounds a little off, doesn't it? A company is supposed to be a thing, not a person. But U.S. Supreme Court rulings on corporate personhood date back to 1886, and subsequently, companies have been able to enjoy some of the rights granted to individuals.
If we consider companies human-like, then it also stands to reason that they have a conscience. Or at least you'd hope they would.
This is from where corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs sprang. And these have typically reflected the good that companies do—hopefully with activities that are congruent with their overall culture—to give back to society.
But are philanthropic or sustainability initiatives enough? There's always the danger of being called out for greenwashing or doing things that are inconsistent with daily business practices. Especially with a public that is more cynical and distrustful of businesses than ever.
Everywhere you look these days, there are examples of leaders in business and government who have conflicts of interest or are in violation of ethics rules.
People are hungry for businesses that act ethically and for leaders who show integrity.
When the function for CSR resides within communications, human resources, or even marketing, it's in danger of becoming something more transactional—a box to check, a program to run.
Not that it doesn't belong there, but with so many bigger issues pressing businesses these days such as artificial intelligence, remote working, climate change, online discourse on social platforms and more, these are elements that deserve deeper thinking.
Enter the in-house philosopher or chief philosophy officer (CPO).
Yes, I know what you're thinking: "We're already fifteen letters deep in an alphabet soup of C-suite executives!"
Stick with me.
What the CPO could offer, according to some descriptions, is an additional viewpoint that takes into account human behavior (not too dissimilar from the chief communications officer acting as a strategic counselor to the CEO) and the broader impacts of business decisions to employees and society.
Traditional executives have a set of known and operational responsibilities for which they're responsible. Marketing, sales, customer retention, press and analyst relations, and so on. And in business schools, ethics is typically taught as a standalone course rather than integrated into each discipline.
Much like social media, the idea of a corporate conscience goes beyond any single existing role or department.
The CEO needs an advisor who can bring together functions of a consultant, strategist, and coach to help company executives to think more clearly with the perspective of an outsider.
This is along the lines of the engagements I've had in the past few years with clients that go beyond communications and marketing. The best relationships have been advisory in nature and help them to think beyond the business and embrace behavioral trends.
It's also why you see less social and digital content from me and more articles about Timeless Wisdom: the intersection of history, literature, philosophy, and business.
If anything, over the last few millennia human nature has shown itself to be constant. The world around us is in constant flux—from how we work to how get around to how we communicate—and yet we're still driven and comforted by the same things as our ancestors.
Philosophy is widely viewed as academic and theoretical; the white togas of the Greek Lyceum gave way to the suede arm patches on tweed jackets on college campuses. But the impracticality is more pronounced when philosophy is practiced in a vacuum—that is, when it's not tethered to anything useful.
And this is why CSR programs that are managed outside of the realm of the business and in-house philosophers who are left to their own devices are less effective. Integrating these processes is essential for a business, particularly as Millennials look to work for and buy from businesses with a purpose. Businesses with a conscience.
What is a conscience, but the marriage of the heart and the mind?
An advisor and coach—a chief philosophy officer, if you must—should help executives think outside of their department, beyond the business, past the bottom line. Toward deeper and more meaningful impacts on the lives of those their company touches.