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How > What

Matt Thomas, Managing Partner
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Years ago I worked for a very large, privately held, company. I lasted two years to the day–more on that in a different article. In those twenty-four months, I held a number of different positions, one of which was in sales.

When they moved me into the sales role, management laid out all of the records previous salespeople had set, dangling them like carrots with astronomical incentives attached. I took the bait and decided that come hell or high water, I was going to break those records.

Sure enough, both high water and hell came in various forms. And while I did manage to break a few of them, I also broke several more important things along the way.

I will never forget the annual meeting where awards, trophies, and bonuses were handed out in front of the entire company. Everyone was clapping and cheering, excited to see their fellow team members celebrated and rewarded. When they announced that new sales records had been set, and that yours truly had broken them, I stood up, eager to bask in the glow of my accomplishments, but no one clapped. Just crickets.

The only person cheering was the CEO, and even he stopped when he realized something was amiss. I stumbled to the front of the room in a cold sweat and received my trophies and bonus check in silence. Then I walked out of the hotel conference room, got in my car, and wept.

What I knew, but refused to acknowledge up to that point, was that I had been ruthless in my pursuit of those records. I had ducked ropes, made other people look bad, and adopted a whatever-it-takes mindset. Sure my superiors were happy, but my peers, and those who worked for me, were rightly disgusted.

I was focused on the end goal with little to no thought about how to get there. The WHAT (setting new sales records) was more important to me than the HOW (the people I stepped on to get there). The following week I was offered a significant promotion. I declined and put in my two weeks notice.

I left that job with a heavy heart. On paper, I had absolutely crushed it, but the wake of destruction was significant. One layer below success were damaged relationships, exploited humans, and burned bridges that remained in disrepair years later. I had prioritized the WHAT over the HOW, and the deafening silence of my co-workers spoke volumes. That silent awards ceremony will haunt me forever, and today I’m grateful for the difficult lesson.

I still love to compete and I play to win with few exceptions. But now I am hyper-vigilant about the impact of my tactics and actions on fellow human beings. Frankly, I am not interested in doing or saying things I’ll have to apologize for later. Treating people with respect and dignity shouldn’t ever be optional.

If the only trajectory toward success requires the exploitation or degradation of other humans, then there is no viable path to real victory.

These days I am most interested in business asa powerful vehicle for good. I am captivated by stories of entrepreneurs who leverage their companies to make the world a better place. I am enthralled with the creative solutions available to business leaders that address real problems in people’s daily lives. There is a bubbling up of ingenuity, risk tolerance, and extraordinary innovation in the SMB world. I am energized by this new frontier.  

But HOW we do it matters as much, if not more, than WHAT we do.

For instance, if you run a successful, highly profitable business, and donate a significant portion of those profits to an organization helping impoverished villages in developing countries get access to clean water, few would argue that WHAT you are doing is good.

But if the path to profitability for your company means paying your employees below-market wages, providing no health insurance, and demanding long hours away from their families with unreasonable production deadlines, you have a problem. The HOW of your business is unethical, exploitative, and wrong.

Your after-the-fact, do-gooder actions are a theatrical bandaid for a mortal wound. Who cares if your money helped dig wells in a remote village when the people on your production line don’t have a livable wage or healthy workplace.

I could provide dozens of similar examples from business leaders who neglected the HOW in pursuit of the WHAT.

The truth is, it’s easy for most of us to tell our selves a version of the story that makes it easier to sleep at night. The deeper work starts with acknowledging that doing good via our businesses is hard. It is complicated and inconvenient. It demands a high pain tolerance and an enduring resilience to keep trying, keep innovating, and keep caring each and every day.

Building a great business is important if we want to have an outsized impact. But HOW we go about building a great business is just as important as whether or not we ever achieve it.

There is much work to be done on this new frontier. May we all accept that the path we take, and the way we walk it, matters just as much as the destination.


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