In my old neighborhood in Queens, we always knew how things were going with our neighbors. You knew who was doing well, who’d had good news recently, who had reason to celebrate. At the same time, you also heard the chatter on the downside: whose business was faltering, whose children had trouble with the law, who was in need of a helping hand. You knew because word got around the neighborhood in a quick and predictable fashion. Deliverymen chatted with their customers. Housewives talked across fences. Grocers picked up the latest from vendors. It was a close circle of intensely local conversation. If you ran a business in the neighborhood, you knew what was going on just by listening to the conversations.
This continued as a legitimate process for me even as I started my own floral business. I spent time in my shop. I spent time in the neighborhood where my shop was located. I talked to everyone who came in and everyone I saw around the neighborhood. It was a familiar process for me.
But as my business grew larger, it naturally outgrew the street-level conversations that I and my father and my old neighbor relied on. This is a common ailment that falls over successful businesses. They outgrow their local conversations. They grow out and up and into tall office towers and suburban office parks, and they stop hearing about the local gossip. They become cut off from the conversations—which are still happening, just not in their earshot.
I’ve spent a great deal of time and effort to ensure this does not happen to 1-800-Flowers.com—and in the process I think I’ve come up with some guidelines other growing businesses can follow. I’ve learned over the years that if you want to stay in touch with community conversations, you have to be on a constant lookout for new and creative ways to be seen and heard and involved. Too often "community involvement" for a business is just another term for charity. It’s an expectation that the big business will write a check—and that’s it. I want our community involvement to go beyond just cash and be a force and a platform for the community conversation—the daily chatter that keeps us all connected and reminds us of who we are and why we’re here.
As a CEO, I view my role as someone who shapes consensus and makes decisions with not only the shareholders in mind, but also the vendors, distributors, and staff. To be sure, my process is capitalist. But there’s no reason that those of us who call ourselves capitalists can’t embrace the growing movement around caring capitalism. It’s a model that’s made this country great. It’s at work in great companies such as Whole Foods. And it’s a natural fit for a firm such as ours.
When you get to a certain size, keeping up the community conversation takes more than an open door and a pot of coffee. You have to get creative.
I was invited by Doug Levy, a master conversational leader, to a gathering of executives at the offices of John Mackey, the founder of Whole Foods. We talked about many things we hoped we could accomplish in the world—initiatives around fair trade, environmental responsibility, and economic growth. All of us had a variety of different ideas floating in our heads, but what John Mackey helped us to see was the framework that all of us fell into: the matrix of Conscious Capitalism.
It’s arcane to place the presence of social consciousness and capitalism at opposite ends of the human conversation. There is no reason they can’t be joined. There are many of us in capitalist businesses who see that as part of our mission.
We face a host of enormous challenges in the world today—everything from climate change to hunger to economic turmoil. It’s not possible for any one entity to solve problems when they reach this scale, but it is still our responsibility to participate in the solutions—particularly in the discussions around new and better solutions that might be developed.
In many ways, conversation drives our community service efforts. It’s never been just about giving money away—although everyone always likes that. Using our position and our resources to start, foster, and participate in the conversation of the community takes me right back to my younger days in Queens. When we can help make those connections that used to be so natural in small neighborhoods, we contribute to the greater good far more powerfully than if we just gave money.
When we are approached to support any good cause, we often look for the conversation opportunities. Is this a way we can connect with customers? Is this a way we can help customers connect with each other? Is this a way that the conversation in our communities—be they local or global—can be supported? If so, this may make sense for us. It’s the community conversation that drives us all forward. In many ways, the world has not changed so much since I lived in Queens. Only the scope of the conversation has been altered. And that is both a challenge and an opportunity.
—Jim McCann is the founder and CEO of 1-800-Flowers.com and author of the new book, Talk Is (Not!) Cheap: The Art of Conversation Leadership (New Harvest; January 2014), from which this article is adapted.