Does Life Imitate Art at Goldman Sachs? Or Something Else?

Posted 03.15.2012

When Greg Smith quit his job running a London based line of business for Goldman Sachs — and told the world why in an op-ed in the New York Times — he acted out the fantasy of everyone who’s ever wanted to tell their employer what they really think of them as they walk out the door.

Smith’s article reminded me of two great lines from “Jerry Maguire.”  The first, of course, is the one immortalized by Cuba Gooding Jr.’s Ron Tidwell: “Show me the money!”  As Smith writes, the only way that customers came up in regular sales meetings at Goldman was “purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them,” and that managing directors of the firm routinely referred to customers as “muppets.”

The second line from Jerry MaGuire that came to mind isn’t quoted as often, but it’s actually my favorite.  It’s the title of the mission statement that Tom Cruise’s Jerry wrote at the beginning of the movie and slipped into the hotel mailboxes of all the sports agents with whom he was attending the company’s offsite.  It was called, “The Things We Think And Do Not Say.”  It was a plea for more humanity in the way his firm did business.  The only difference at Goldman this week was that Smith actually said it and did so in the most publicly possible way.

As the Times reported later in the day, Smith’s resignation article took Wall Street by storm.  I’d sum up the reaction as “where you stand depends on where you sit.”  If you’re inclined to believe that Goldman represents a broken business culture, you believe Smith hit the nail on the head.  If you’re in the industry, you take a more skeptical view.

For me, it all reminds me of a post I wrote a couple of years ago when 29 coal miners were killed in an explosion in an unsafe mine run by the now defunct Massey Energy.  It was called I and It or I and Thou?   It was based on the work of the theologian Martin Buber and in it, I wrote that we can view our interactions with people as “I – It” relationships in which people are essentially functions of production that enable us to achieve our goals. Alternatively, we can approach our relationships as “I – Thou” relationships in which we look for, acknowledge and act on the sacred aspects of the human experience.

If Smith is at all accurate in what he wrote, there was an I-It culture at work in his firm.  I’ll end this post with a version of the question I ended with a couple of years ago.  What behaviors and outcomes would we see in an organization where the leaders practiced an I- Thou approach with all of their stakeholders, customers included?  Is such a workplace even possible?