Innovating for happiness
Can distributors lean in to serve customers by helping them achieve meaning in their work and wealth for their families?
Last week, I announced plans for an innovation initiative at the NAW Executive Summit. Our work is about learning how to lean in to help customers innovate in their business, then working back to innovate the innovator's company. In a way, this is the holy grail of distribution: reinventing what it means to be an intermediary by bringing value to customers that goes way beyond delivering suppliers’ products. At the summit, I was delighted to listen to Arthur Brooks, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. For a decade, Brooks was president of the American Enterprise Institute. For our audience of distributor CEOs, Brooks shared his work about happiness, explained through his research, personal life, and classroom experience. His message was aimed at business leaders, but I found inspiration for distribution's innovators and a frame for our NAW Facing the Forces of Change® initiative. In this edition, I draw on what Brooks said and provide quotations from his comments shared in this Aspen Ideas to Go podcast. This edition will guide my work, and is a first pass at applying Brooks' insights and advice.
Opening new doors
We live in epic times, and the ongoing digital transformation and generational transfer create stress and trauma in our lives and work. But epic times also create extraordinary opportunities. The job of distribution's innovators is to rethink their company's purpose, align with the struggles of our time, and offer a way forward. The door to the future is wide open for distribution companies because their highest purpose is to help their customers—as companies and individuals—transform their work and, through their work, transform their lives.
It is not possible to act and do extraordinary things by copying what others do. Best practices are powerful for fixing broken companies, keeping up with competitors, and expanding into adjacent markets. There is power in that—and profits—and implementing best practices requires strong leadership, outside assistance, and a significant investment. Best practices are the right path for many companies, delivering remarkable results. But the outcomes achieved are not system-changing. And much more is needed if an entire industry, like distribution, is to step up to help our society and economy overcome dark times to thrive in the digital age.
Brooks is aiming at what ails us. He understands business, having led an organization advocating for free enterprise in all markets around the world. In his writing and teaching about happiness, Brooks argues that life is never easy, but the struggle against adversity, especially in difficult times, gives meaning to our humanity. From Brooks, I learned that meaning leads to happiness—not as a transitory feeling, but as a soulful satisfaction. Happiness is not attained through our subconscious instincts, but rather by a continuous campaign guided by our conscious mind and determined effort.
Brooks adds fresh insights and illuminating data for understanding today's adversities and pointing a way forward. Among our many difficulties in a digital world, two stand out:
The great resignation. The new leaders, managers, and workers among us want something different or more from work. What that is is not yet clear, but it is one of the forces driving the talent crunch. Many companies find it hard to fill open positions and to retain workers. Brooks has the data: “60% of Americans say that they're going to change jobs, and probably 30% will.” That's high by historical standards, and part of the reason is that work is not giving workers what they need. Brooks explains, “about half of the compensation from your work tends to be social, and when you take that away, you won't be conscious of it; you'll just like your job less and not know why.”
Dehumanizing work. Digital technologies make it possible for many workers to work away from where their peers are working—often at home, using a virtual call platform. But there's more. Automation is replacing human effort with tools powered by artificial intelligence. Customers buy online, often without contact with salespeople or customer service representatives. Training is accomplished on video calls or through recorded media, diminishing or replacing human connection. Brooks teaches online and likes convenience. But he also shares, “what we find is that people are lonelier than they think, and they're more depressed than they understand, and it's especially true for young people.”
Despite the promise of the metaverse, we all live as humans in the physical world. Digital technology offers unprecedented convenience and exponential efficiency gains, but at a cost borne by people. Brooks is anxious, remarking, “We need to be eye to eye and hand to hand. And that's really, really important for all of us. And that's one of the things that I'm quite worried about.” Happiness is elusive, but it is, perhaps, the ultimate good.
The pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and remains a holy grail today. Happiness is a rightful aspiration and a North Star for distribution's innovators. It's up to all of us, especially those that will succeed their seniors, to accept the mantle and push ahead. Brooks says: “You're not going to find happiness, but you can be happier. And the journey is the destination, and the key to the treasure is the treasure. This is one of the great secrets: do the work, and you will actually become happier. And in that pursuit, you will bring happiness to more people around you, and you'll be living up to what I still hope is the American promise.”
Brooks provides a way forward:
One of the things that's very clear in all of the research on happiness is that there are four investments that you need to make. People have a lot of misconceptions about what happiness is and how to pursue it, but the one thing is that the happiest people pursue four things seriously. They put a deposit in four accounts every day, which is their faith, their family, their friendship, and their work that serves other people.
Brooks’ four deposits are a foundation for distribution's purpose-driven innovators who accept the challenge of helping skilled workers—contractors, technicians, machinists, drivers, chefs, engineers, welders, facilities managers, and more—flourish. Skilled workers are the forgotten middle class, the heart and soul of their communities, and a force for a healthy economy. Helping them realize the dignity of their labors, the respect of society, and wealth for their families is a worthy calling. In the business world, committing to serve the workers that serve all of us is akin to a spiritual or divine vocation.
Sitting in the audience listening to Brooks, I noticed that the leaders in attendance were paying attention, taking notes, and sneaking in a few low-volume side conversations. Happiness has meaning for them, and Brooks’ words have struck a chord. Innovating around happiness requires a mindset, perhaps a fresh look at life and work. The succeeding generation seems to get this, and in my writing, I often find that fixing the environment and striving for wellness are top priorities. Given that, innovating distribution to help skilled workers is aligned with the times. Digging in to Brooks’ four deposits just a little, I start the work of translating them to spark innovation and, perhaps, transform an industry around a bold purpose for an epic time:
Work that serves other people. Skilled workers embrace a craft or trade that creates value for others. The challenge for distribution's innovators is to align their people, processes, and tools to enable skilled workers and monetize their efforts.
Friendship. Brooks distinguishes between “weekend” and “deal” friends. Weekend friends offer ongoing personal relationships. Deal friends offer social interaction at work, but the relationship is transactional. A distribution company’s work with workers cannot be cynical or sales-y.
Family. Some companies embrace their people as a family, but distribution’s innovators need a different frame. They must re-humanize workers and consider them not as marketing targets in a segment that uses suppliers’ products, but as citizens in a community defined by its shared challenges, opportunities, needs, and aspirations.
Faith. The purpose of business is not to earn profits, but to execute a purpose that creates human and economic goods. Profits are the measure of business done well, but pursuing a purpose requires faith that achieving something important is possible.
Foresight and footsteps
Flannery O'Connor, the great American author, said, “I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say.”Looking back at this edition and the previous two (here and here), I think I have arrived at a way forward for innovating distribution:
Purpose. Know your company’s purpose and align it with the struggles and opportunities of our time.
Relationships. Create collaborative relationships with customers and partners by developing the qualities of attention, accompaniment, and conversation in your organization.
Lean in. Shift the weight of your effort towards your customers with a sincere resolve, and do the work of helping them (and your people) achieve happiness.
I need your help with my NAW Facing the Forces of Change initiative. I am looking for volunteers to share ideas and experiences, make introductions, and offer feedback on what we create. Together, we will work to help distributors innovate with customers. Our work is organic, and there are many ways to contribute. If you would like to join in, please click here to schedule a call or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or my partner, Bart Tessel, NAW's Chief Innovation Officer, at email@example.com.