Our last blog (10/26) discussed Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s claim that “companies are people, my friend.”
What if he told the protestor he encountered at the Iowa State Fair “companies are actually like countries, my friend”?
One, he would hand the Republican nomination to Texas Governor Rick Parry. Such is the price for telling the truth, or something close to it, in politics.
Two, for indeed, he would have been closer to the truth.
In terms of companies being people, they are more akin to avatars. Avatars are artificial manifestations of a person or an idea. They are profit and loss projections, not living humans. Apple, Amazon, Starbucks, Target are avatars of business concepts. Steve Jobs was an avatar for the cool, hip genius CEO.
But companies, especially the largest, more closely resemble nation-states without geographical boundaries than anything else.
The largest corporations have vast populations. Wal-Mart employs about 2.1 million people. That’s more than the population of more than 90 countries.
Corporations, like countries, have cultures. This has been studied in depth in safety circles in recent years. Like countries, corporations have norms, belief systems. They have histories and legacies. Scandals and corruption. Allies and arch rivals. Heroes and villains. Dissidents.
Companies have cliques and fiefdoms; countries have tribes and fiefdoms. There are kings and queens (CEOs) and their court (boards of directors). Corporations experience regime changes; some smooth, some ugly. Both companies and countries abhor chaos, and will to lengths to prevent it. Both can have top-down command and control hierarchies to keep order.
Companies and countries must have leadership. Companies might have a portfolio of ministers. The minister of finance. The minister of environment. The minister of safety and health maybe.
Companies and countries both spend much time working external affairs; they have reputations to defend and enhance; lobbyists working on their behalf; public relations firms channeling their messages.
Both countries and companies must concern themselves with third-party ratings. For countries it’s Moody’s and the International Monetary Fund. For companies it can be environmental ratings, sustainability ratings, the best places to work ratings, fastest-growing company ratings.
Then there is the matter of defense. Some corporations employ security forces more formidable than many small countries.
Like countries, some corporations are more open, more transparent, than others. Small businesses are more likely than large ones, just like countries to be egalitarian. Or something close to it. Small businesses can benefit from being tight communities , where everyone knows each other.
One distinction between corporations and countries is when it comes to the arts. Countries are home to artists: musicians, poets, writers, filmmakers, dancers, painter, etc. Corporations, unless they are entertainment companies, appropriate art, they do not create it. They hire architects to design their facilities. They buy paintings to hang in their lobbies. They pipe in music.
But companies, large and small, have rituals and traditions, as do countries. Retail stores have Black Friday, some starting before dawn. There is the annual sales bash. The Christmas Party (more politically correct these days). The brainstorming retreat. The teambuilding retreat. The weekly, monthly, quarterly and/or annual sales, production, quality, health and safety reviews.
Many smaller, family-owned businesses are run like small countries with their royal families. If you as an employee are not part of the royalty, there is only so far you can go in the company. Companies can be run by ruthless despots or benign dictators, like countries.
Companies and countries both compete for customers, be they retail shoppers, moviegoers or car buyers for businesses; and foreign investors, multinational operations and tourists for countries.
Right now, we are seeing both many companies and countries try to downsize. Cut spending, crunch budgets. Measures can be harsh, old entitlements die hard, and resistance is on the rise. Some dictators are and will be forced out, some elected officials voted out, and some CEOs shown the door.
Such are the parallels between companies and countries. But you won’t hear a pol talking about this at a state fair. Too complex for a sound bite. And what does it have to do about jobs, anyway? Both companies and countries can create jobs, of course, but there is not a lot of that happening now. Again, the reasons are too complex for sound bites.