Business TED Talks

Can we reframe business around ideals? Jim Stengel makes the case at TED2012

Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Jim Stengel enters the TED courtroom to make the case that it’s time to change the state of business. But he starts his story with the tale of his younger brother, Bob, who grew up to be a star physician and to whom he was super-close from childhood. You can hear his pride as he describes Bob, “the finest human being I have ever met.” And we know where this story is going: leukemia, diagnosed in August, 2001, the very same month Jim was appointed global marketing officer of the largest consumer goods firm in the world, Procter & Gamble.

Unsurprisingly, the clash of good and bad information caused Stengel to undertake some serious thinking. “Could I go to work to build Procter & Gamble’s mighty brands when my brother was fighting to beat that disease?” he asked himself. The answer, it turned out, was yes, though now Stengel resolved to approach his job a little differently, to take his brother along with him wherever he went.

2001 was not just a crazy time for Stengel; it was a heady time for the entire world. We didn’t know it then, he says, but business as it had been conducted for decades was coming apart at the seam. Enron, AIG, Bear Sterns were flunking; Internet-driven companies were on the rise. Stengel embarked on a personal quest to rethink business as usual and enter what he describes as “the era of higher ideals,” that is business based around ideals such as generosity, giving, service and passion. Eventually, he left P&G in order to strike out on his own, to understand more about this shift. And he approvingly cites companies including Lindt, Method and Petrobras, Discovery Channel and IBM as those that have understood and embraced such qualities.

Bob died on November 4th, 2010, says Stengel, with a catch in his voice. “He was and is my inspiration. He helped me to see a very different world of business and to approach my business life in a different way and a different spirit.” Now, he vows his mission is to continue preaching his new gospel and persuade others to join the new narrative. After all, three billion people are involved in business around the world. “What if a large percentage adopted this story? How would organizations change? How would innovation change? How would advertising change? How would business change?” It’s this opportunity that he is arguing we should commit to following.

Jury question: Can he really persuade executives that this is viable when they’re so focused on the next quarter’s results? Stengel’s reply: Absolutely. You have to operate according to your ideals in order to get shareholder value. Case carried.