Business = Service

Wisdom from Nike’s Phil Knight

From Nike’s Find Your Greatness campaign

I grew up knowing that ‘business’ was in my DNA, that my life would likely be spent in ‘business’. I knew it was where exciting, creative, significant things happened. But what ‘business’ meant was very abstract to me. Even the origins of the word are as vague as could be: ‘the state of being busy’. In this emptiness, we’re left to apply meaning ourselves.

As a kid spending time in my dad’s office, it meant post it notes, highlighters and stationary catalogues. As a teenager contemplating a career it meant studying economics and law. As a young strategy consultant it meant entering new markets and finding ways to reinvent and scale, or put simply, ultimately business was about growing profits. Business = profit.

During the last ten+ years, the business world is redefining itself (or, re-awakening?) to a new, more expansive operating model that defines the role of business as more than just profit. New ways of articulating this form of business are emerging, from ‘conscious capitalism’, ‘shared value’, ‘sustainable business’, ‘performance with purpose’, and enso’s efforts in this space, ‘world value’.

But I think there’s a simpler definition, and of course it’s as simple as it could be: business = service.

Phil Knight, the founder of Nike made me realize this, by writing about his profound realization, twenty years into building Nike; twenty years of defining ‘business’ as chasing an elusive concept of ‘winning’.

“For some, I realize, business is the all-out pursuit of profits, period, full stop, but for us business was no more about making money than being human is about making blood. Yes, the human body needs blood. It needs to manufacture red and white cells and platelets and redistribute them evenly, smoothly, to all the right places, on time, or else. But that day-to-day business of the human body isn’t our mission as human beings. It’s a basic process that enables our higher aims, and life always strives to transcend the basic processes of living — and at some point in the late 1970s, I did, too.
I redefined winning, expanded it beyond my original definition of not losing, of merely staying alive. That was no longer enough to sustain me, or my company. We wanted, as all great businesses do, to create, to contribute, and we dared to say so aloud.
When you make something, when you improve something, when you deliver something, when you add some new thing or service to the lives of strangers, making them happier, or healthier, or safer, or better, and when you do it all crisply and efficiently, smartly, the way everything should be done but so seldom is — you’re participating more fully in the whole grand human drama.
More than simply alive, you’re helping others to live more fully, and if that’s business, all right, call me a businessman.

Phil Knight

To create, to contribute… to improve something, deliver something, add something to make others happier, healthier, safer, better; in other words, to be in service.

When I think about the companies that have ‘gone wrong’, you could almost inevitably say they have stopped being in service of people. Sadly, ‘service’ in business parlance either means a type of activity (‘is it a a good or a service?’), or it means a specific team — ‘customer service’ — which is almost always an afterthought, a necessary evil to be performed in an offshore service center with an organization’s lowest paid employees. And ‘service’ in culture generally means something far from business—most associated with church groups, non profits and altruism—but not business, and certainly not ‘successful’ business.

But what if leadership teams operated with service as their operating principle? How different would the world look?

Martin Luther King said, ‘Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve’.

What if leadership teams reapplied that thinking? 
‘Every business can be great, because any business can serve’.

What if every business participated more fully in the whole grand human drama?


For more on the power of service, see the work of Adam Grant; ‘The greatest untapped source of motivation…is a sense of service to others’