Revisiting Conscious Capitalism

Jan 15, 2018

We all like and need profits, but there’s more to doing business than the bottom line, and the A/E industry should take heed.

I’ve previously written about a group I’ve become active with here in Reno, which has offices in many cities throughout the world. To become familiar with the organization, I recommend a visit to their website.

Just a portion of the group’s credo says it all:

“We believe that business is good because it creates value, it is ethical because it is based on voluntary exchange, it is noble because it can elevate our existence, and it is heroic because it lifts people out of poverty and creates prosperity. Free enterprise capitalism is the most powerful system for social cooperation and human progress ever conceived. It is one of the most compelling ideas we humans have ever had. But we can aspire to even more.”

The four key principles of Conscious Capitalism are:

  1. Higher purpose. In the words of University of Virginia Darden School of Business professor and Conscious Capitalism, Inc. trustee R. Edward Freeman, “We need red blood cells to live (the same way a business needs profits to live), but the purpose of life is more than to make red blood cells (the same way the purpose of business is more than simply to generate profits).” While making money is essential for the vitality and sustainability of a business, it is not the only or even the most important reason a business exists. Conscious businesses focus on their purpose beyond profit. We all need meaning and purpose in our lives. It is one of the things that separates us from other animals. Purpose activates us and motivates us. It moves us to get up in the morning, sustains us when times get tough, and serves as a guiding star when we stray off course. Conscious businesses provide us with this sense of meaning and purpose. By focusing on its deeper purpose, a conscious business inspires, engages, and energizes its stakeholders. Employees, customers, and others trust and even love companies that have an inspiring purpose.
  2. Stakeholder. Pioneering naturalist John Muir observed, “When you tug at a single thing in nature, you find it attached to the rest of the world.” Such is the case with business, which is an intricate and interconnected web of relationships. Unlike some businesses that believe they only exist to maximize return on investment for their shareholders, conscious businesses focus on their whole business ecosystem, creating and optimizing value for their stakeholders, understanding that strong and engaged stakeholders lead to a healthy, sustainable, resilient business. They recognize that, without employees, customers, suppliers, funders, supportive communities, and a life-sustaining ecosystem, there is no business. Conscious business is a win-win-win proposition, which includes a healthy return to shareholders.
  3. Leadership. Robert Greenleaf, author of Servant Leadership, observed that, “Good leaders must first become good servants.” Conscious leaders focus on “we,” rather than “me.” They inspire, foster transformation, and bring out the best in those around them. They understand that their role is to serve the purpose of the organization, to support the people within the organization, and to create value for the organization’s stakeholders. They recognize the integral role of culture and purposefully cultivate a conscious culture of trust and care.
  4. Culture. “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” Famed management guru Peter Drucker didn’t mince words, and he knew how to identify and articulate the keys to success in business. Culture is the embodied values, principles, and practices underlying the social fabric of a business, which permeates its actions and connects the stakeholders to each other and to the company’s purpose, people, and processes. A conscious culture fosters love and care and builds trust between a company’s team members and its other stakeholders. Conscious culture is an energizing and unifying force that truly brings a conscious business to life.

One of the entities here in Reno which lives and breathes the tenets of Conscious Capitalism is Hub Coffee Roasters. The business may seem like it’s a long way from the architecture and engineering professions, but I think when you learn about how the Hub applies their principles, you’ll understand how universal the concepts are.

Let’s take hiring. The Hub never hires based on a single interview, preferring two to three to gauge the cultural fit between the candidate and the company’s values. The Hub has a new hire packet with basic information. If the candidate is deemed appropriate, the hiring manager schedules application training, asks the candidate to shadow someone they’ll be working with. There’s a tutorial on coffee knowledge using a train-the-trainer format they’ve developed. The applicant learns alongside an existing employee, observing situational judgment, something we, in our professions, should spend more time on.

As the Hub has grown to multiple locations, they’ve had to be more disciplined in finding great people who are passionate about coffee, and who are able to easily engage with their customers. They’ve been diligent about maintaining family values and, from a benefits standpoint, providing health coverage to all full-time employees, something that is quite rare in today’s small business work environment.

They’ve been able to grow without carrying debt. I wish I could say the same about so many of our practitioners. Another unique challenge they have is the need to fully engage in a respectful fashion with their partners, the growers from whom they purchase their beans. I wish we all held that same notion of respecting the stakeholder with whom we are so dependent.

Architects, engineers, building officials, and contractors are interdependent, needing to develop trusting relationships with each other to deliver a great completed building. If we sustain that sort of relationship, we will receive our finest referrals from those whom we have truly treated as partners.

And, of course, there’s the need to groom and nurture leaders, those who carry the message and meaning of the work we do to those with whom we interact. That is truly the nature of a firm that will not only be successful, but that will continue to grow. Conscious Capitalism warrants a deeper look from the A/E industry.

Ed Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with Zweig Group and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at

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