Not Profit; Sustainability

When I first started a company, I was uncomfortable talking about the money. I justified it by saying that we were shielding our employees from the business of the business. It’s the owners’ job to worry about the ups and downs of the company. We, the owners, were the ones who signed up for the risks, rewards, and stress of running a business. It wasn’t right to pass those concerns on to our employees.

But it did leave me with some guilty feelings that we were hiding something from our team. What was there to hide? The money. The “profit.” It became like Voldemort. Do not speak its name. If we talk about the profit, people will want it. They’ll ask for higher salaries and bonuses. Or they’ll quit because they’re feeling exploited. So we shouldn’t talk about it. And we should take this secret money and keep it for ourselves? That sounds greedy and generally uncool. Hmm… maybe it would be easier if there was no profit at all.

“Profit” is a problematic word. Although this usually isn’t true, it implies “money that goes to the owners.” It is a quantitive word — relatively easy to calculate — a field on your tax form. It’s a word that can lead to short-term thinking and justify inhuman behavior. Many awful things have happened in the name of profit.

Of course, an unprofitable business cannot sustain itself. It is a business that will soon go out of business. But what if we shift our focus from the beginning of that first sentence to the end? What if we shift our focus from “profitability” to “sustainability”? After all, sustainability is the real goal. Profit is just a marker along the way to sustainability.

“Sustainability” is a much less problematic word. It implies long-term thinking and wider, more comprehensive goals. It is a more qualitative word — harder (but not impossible) to measure. It is people-focused and considers the value of job security, long-term relationships, and happiness. It is more holistic, all-encompassing, and inclusive.

Sustainability is something we can talk about much more openly. In fact, by talking about sustainability, we now have a much better framework for talking about profitability, discussing the finances of our company, and sharing some of the stress that comes around these. In a profit-focused company, growth might represent owner greed and selfishness. But in a sustainability-focused company, growth is more likely to represent diversification and expansion to offer more opportunities and benefits for everyone at the company. A sustainable company is a successful company — profitable, yes — but also set up for success moving forward.

The next time it comes up, try substituting the word “sustainability” for the word “profit”. I promise you, it will change the way you think about the future of your company.

Jeff Robbins is a business coach, mentor, and virtual business partner who works one-on-one with company owners and leaders to help them build vision and direction for their companies while building productivity, stability, and happiness for their employees and themselves. You can work with him too. Reach out to set up a free consultation session.

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Jeff Robbins

Cofounder at @Lullabot. Executive Coach at @jjeff. Rockstar at @Orbitband.