BY SAMIRA SOOD
Next in our series on conscious businesses, we talk to Kent Gregoire, one of only seven certified conscious capitalism consultants in the world. Along with being the Founder and CEO of Symphony Advantage, which provides advisory services, training, and coaching to executive-level management, he’s also a serial entrepreneur and angel investor in purpose-driven businesses. He talks to Slurrp Farm about how businesses are changing, what makes conscious capitalism different from ESG, B Corp, and CSR, and more. Here are excerpts from our chat.
You started your first manufacturing company at the age of 14 — could you talk about that experience and what drew you to the conscious approach to business?
My great-uncle had a company called Velvet — a cleaning compound. He wasn’t the best entrepreneur. Although he did do a fairly nice job of supporting his family, he just abandoned his company. It sat idle for 15 years. He would always bring over these bottles of Velvet and my family would use them or give them out, and I’d wonder: Why aren’t we doing something with this? I started doing my own research and I was supported by Mom and Dad who were entrepreneurs. The next thing I knew, I actually had customers who wanted to buy it, but I said I don’t want to do one on one, I only want to sell by the case. So that meant I, at 14, had to go into stores and convince them to take this cleaning compound and buy it in cases of 24.
So that was how it started and it gave me a chance to learn what entrepreneurship looked like. Eventually, when I was about 19, I sold it — not the rights to the actual product itself, but it didn’t really have a life afterwards. I was netting 40-60K USD a year, which back then, was quite a bit of money. But it just wasn’t practical anymore when I decided to go away to school.
Then I was at a tech company based in Vermont, where we had clients all around the globe. That company was a major success — if we want to define success by financial results. But my father, who was not an investor, or even a part of the company, asked to meet with me — this was probably in 1992, when I was in my late 20s. My dad had always really been a huge champion of my life, for him I could do nothing wrong, but this time, he felt I’d lost my way. I wasn’t living up to family values. His point was that since I was doing well financially, I had all these resources, but I was not doing good with them, and that really bothered him. That was probably the first of many incremental shifts towards changing how I viewed business.
Tell me about your journey towards conscious capitalism specifically.
Over the years, I began learning more about entrepreneurship and CEOs I really admired, and I understood there was something different about them. Alongside, I started to understand the challenges we face globally, and I wanted to see if there was a way we could be doing business differently. I just didn’t know who to go to, where, how. About four years ago, I was introduced to conscious capitalism as a concept, as defined in John Mackey and Raj Sisodia’s book of the same name, and then attended my first conscious capitalism CEO summit. There, I realised, was my tribe.
These were people who understood purpose-driven companies, keeping in mind a larger picture, keeping people and planet front and centre. I realised there is a model for this.
I was invited to be part of the first cohort of the first certification programme of conscious capitalism, and I’m the seventh person to be certified. As the first cohort, we were also shaping the programme, putting a lot of demands on each other, plus we had the challenge of finding the right clients.
Have there been times when you hit a roadblock with a client? How did you handle that?
I’m reminded of a client who engaged me early on, who originally knew nothing about conscious capitalism. He actually got me on board to help him fix financial problems in his organisation — not work I’d normally do. He was only interested in how much cash he could generate from his company for himself. And that’s actually what got him into trouble in the first place. So I started to work with him by using a conscious approach, but not telling him. I’d tell him if he didn’t do a particular thing, he’d go out of business, so we’d need to look at various stakeholders differently. That way, he would buy into what I was saying, even though I had not defined any higher purpose or anything, I’d just presented a situation in which he and everyone could win. In a short time, I was able to improve his cash flow. We then started having discussions about conscious capitalism and how powerful it could be. I think he still connected it to money, but I’ve seen slight shifts.
In their book, Mackey and Sisodia talk about how “feminine” values are on the rise, and male business leaders are becoming more comfortable with a non-traditional, less stereotypically masculine idea of strong leadership. Do you think conscious businesses are gaining ground partly because of the increase in women in the workforce?
I think it’s true. Just 15 years ago, women leaders, earlier in my career, tried to appear like men and there was a big disconnect. Because they were trying to compete in that world, they felt they had to behave differently in a man’s world — and it didn’t work because other women had a tough time dealing with that. That acceptance of “feminine” values is definitely changing. But it’s not just the rise of women in the workforce. It’s also the diversity and inclusion of different groups: LGBTQ, black, brown. Although it’s still very uncomfortable for many people to work with people different from themselves, more people are realising that’s how we grow. There are a number of leaders in the US, serving on boards or as CEOs, who are gay. It’s still mostly men, not lesbians. But it’s changing.
And there’s research that’s shown that in those organisations, as with women-led ones, there is an increased level of trust and the feeling of being cared for.
Since you got into this area, what fundamental shifts have you seen in the business world? What do you think brought those on — any specific global events that stand out?
Well, it’s pretty hard not to focus on Covid as the major event. It’s been heartbreaking on so many levels. For many organisations, it has been an important learning curve, especially those who didn’t understand that they need to be creating new value, to have the ability to pivot (a word that became big during the pandemic) and innovate — and that doesn’t mean in a Thomas Edison kind of way, but like, innovating with stakeholders. Many companies claim to have pivoted and learnt, but failed to innovate. The challenge for companies, aside from Covid itself, has been how to work with stakeholders. Many have displayed a very ‘protect me’ kind of attitude instead of engaging all stakeholders to help protect each other.
Have you noticed a spike in the way businesses embed/are trying to embed conscious capitalism in their way of working after seeing the impact of the pandemic, and seeing how environmental choices can lead to such a disaster?
Right now, it seems the major change is in working from home, starting to explore hybrid working models and trying to figure out the new normal. The biggest fear, from what I read and hear, is that while we are getting vaccinated, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to have another situation. Covid is here, it’s not going away, so how do we navigate this? Companies are like, we can’t just keep pivoting all the time. They made the quantum leap to do new things, meet new requirements, create new customer opportunities, but they’re afraid they might have to go through this all over again. A conversation I’ve been having with them is: Do you need to go through this again? What are you doing to plan for the next time?
Environmentally, I don’t know. I think the focus will be more on employees than on the environment. Even though many of those who put profit first may not know how to create a culture of caring and trust like in a conscious model, they’re showing more willingness to care for and consider the employees in a deeper way in decision making. The tricky part is that sometimes when I hear that, this is laden with tradeoffs. Someone in the conscious capitalism community talked recently about what she wanted to do for her employees and the subject of time off came up. She said all her people were originally on salary and she felt it would be more fair to put them on hourly pay, reduce the amount of paid time off from four to two weeks, but they could opt out because of the hourly pay structure. She was frustrated because she was not getting what she needed from her team, so she felt she was doing the best for them, but without consulting them. The conscious capitalism model would be to make sure employees have everything they need.
How does conscious capitalism reconcile, then, with a gig economy, in terms of control versus freedom, flexibility versus stability?
We approach it as going back to that culture of caring and trust. How are you going to help your employees thrive and love what they do? For many people, freedom and flexibility lead to the realisation that they’re lost. Take, for example, unlimited vacation time. It sounds great, but I think it’s a disaster. Because every time you take vacation, you’ll be guiltily thinking: Is this person taking it, is that person taking it, what’s acceptable, if I take too much, am I going to be told I’m not a good team member? I do believe freedom and flexibility are essential, but one way to do that is to create a support structure of learning and growing, a culture of caring and trust. Flexibility and security are not mutually exclusive if the value systems aren’t in conflict.
In many ways, many companies do try to take care of some of the tenets of conscious capitalism, so what makes a conscious business different? And how different are ESG, B Corp, and CSR from conscious capitalism?
By employing one or more of the tenets, one is on a journey of consciousness, but actually, we believe it takes more than the four tenets to really be a conscious business. For example, from a stakeholder standpoint it includes the planet, but we believe that that part should be addressed specifically. The same with inclusivity, equality, and diversity.
The thing is, many companies’ purpose may look and sound good but it might not be something that people are able to execute against throughout the entire environment. Because it’s not worthy enough. More often than not, it’s used as PR, greenwashing, marketing.
Having a deeper purpose to solve a specific problem for society is what’s essential to a conscious approach, so that the purpose is integrated and embedded across the entire company. But if you lack purpose, you’re only going to go so far.
Companies that are not moving to conscious capitalism will find it harder to do business as their competitors will have figured it out and will leapfrog and make them irrelevant.
Coming to the different business models, I think conscious capitalism is a complete business model. ESG addresses one aspect and CSR addresses one problem, but they’re not integrated. B Corp is not actually changing the way in which the entire business model operates, it’s just looking at key measurements to check a box. Of course it’s better to do something rather than nothing, but it’s not complete. Like, a company might have a great CSR programme that addresses a problem, but might be paying its employees low wages. The better we get at integrating the tenets, the higher returns we will see. But it’s not easy and it takes a while to see returns.
Out of the four pillars of conscious capitalism, Higher Purpose is the axis on which everything else functions. But in some cases, some of the companies I’m talking to are starting from, say, employee engagement, and that’s fine, too. I don’t ask them to change it. If that’s what they’re struggling with, it’s fine to start from that point. There’s a fair amount of work you can do to elevate the culture, too. Sometimes it’s ok not to go back to the root first thing, if that’s not what you need first. But the real benefit of conscious capitalism won’t come, because you’ll only go so far.