Nina Montgomery on the Existential Divide Between Corporate Purpose and Human Meaning

Mixing Board member Nina Montgomery is an archeologist-turned-designer. By day, Nina works at IDEO on social and environmental challenges that require collective action. By night, she is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford studying business, religion, and society. She’s written two books Perspectives on Purpose and Perspectives on Impact — that bring together 40 executives to share their thoughts on how the private sector can engage with the biggest challenges of our time. She also writes a newsletter for LinkedIn called Reimagining Capitalism and teaches on this topic at Stanford as an appointed Lecturer.

Here are excerpts from this Mixing Board Studio Session between Nina and Mixing Board founder Sean Garrett. They talk about our search for meaning and its influence on tomorrow’s workforce, moving from climate conversation to action, and breaking the “growth at all costs” cycle.

SG: Let’s start with your career to date. First of all, WTF? A stint as an archeologist, two books, a newsletter, design work at IDEO, finishing a PhD, and you teach at Stanford. How have you architected such a mosaic career thus far?

NM: I think it was probably a combination of very happy accidents and serendipitous stumbling. I mostly just followed my intuition and have done my best to chase things that were genuinely interesting to me. Right out of college, for example, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up but I knew that I loved Roman history. So I started my early career as an archeologist, working at sites in Pompeii and Rome, and wrote a 170 page thesis on the Latin poetry written during the ten-year civil war after Julius Caesar’s murder.

SG: As one does, Nina.

NM: It was such a fascinating, messy moment with tons of social upheaval! The Republic that governed Roman life was clearly under threat as more monarchical figures started to gain legitimacy, but people didn’t know what would emerge in its wake (sound familiar?). You had all these competing powers telling stories about their visions for a better future. I loved studying how people, whether poets or potters, made sense of this messiness. How do civilizations rise and fall? How do the stories we tell ourselves take shape and spark change (or inhibit it)? If there’s any throughline between these Roman history days and what I do now, it’s an interest in these same questions.

How I got from there to here is where the happy stumbling starts. I knew I didn’t want to be an academic and so after grad school, a friend helped me realize that a lot of the questions I was curious about were, perhaps surprisingly, being asked in the world of brand strategy. I took a job at a New York strategy shop and during my two years at the agency, I noticed that we stopped getting briefs for brand positioning. Instead, corporate clients started to ask for help defining their brand purpose — which was basically brand positioning by a different name, with an emphasis on grander stories of why a brand exists. I was like, “Huh, that’s an interesting shift.”

But as part of the boom and bust cycle of agency life, the company I was working for shut down basically overnight. I was 25 and unemployed in New York trying to figure out, existentially, what to do, and practically, how to pay rent. The next two years unfolded in a way I could never have imagined. I started an alcoholic kombucha company with a dear friend. I leaned into my Ph.D., looking at how the business community borrows ideas from religion as they increasingly try to ‘manage meaning.’

Another random serendipity — someone told me I should write a book with my newfound free time, but I figured no one wanted to hear from a 25-year-old unemployed woman who had only worked professionally for two years. So, I ended up pitching a book that would get industry leaders to write how they’re putting purpose into practice. After getting the book deal, I cold LinkedIn messaged a lot of people and everyone from Jessica Alba to Jacqueline Novogratz said yes! In the end, about 40 executives ended up writing chapters (including a number of people who are part of the Mixing Board community), and one book split into two. Working day in and day out with these executives to write the books became the unexpected education of a lifetime.

I then found my way to IDEO. Coming from the archeology world, I had never heard of the company before but one cold LinkedIn message led to another, and the rest is history. I’ve found the process of design incredibly powerful. I think at its best, good design reframes how we think about a challenge, and in so doing cracks open new possibilities. This is where the magic, where the innovation, happens. At IDEO, my team works specifically with companies and coalitions interested in addressing climate and social challenges. To be honest, my Latin and archeology background are more informative for this work than my PhD in business! This is because business-as-usual probably won’t help us get to the innovation we need; just like Rome at the end of the Republic, it’s the new stories, the visions of a better future, the shift of power, and civilizational transformation that will get us there.

SG: What is a PhD in religion and business?

NM: Good question! My academic work focuses on business’ relationship with society, but I formally sit in a religion department. This may seem strange, but actually, a lot of our foundational thinking about business comes from thinkers who, in part, studied religion.

Most people credit Frederick Taylor as ‘inventing’ management studies in the 1900s. His view of business was shaped by the economic context around him: increasing division of labor and industrialization at the turn of the century gave rise to a great problem of inefficiency for corporate managers. So studying efficiency became the name of the academic game. And answers to the question “how do we organize the business most efficiently” came from scholars like Max Weber and Émile Durkheim, who weren’t business scholars at all. They studied how societies organize, with a big emphasis on the role of religion and meaning in various society types. Ideas that became the hallmark of 20th century business — from bureaucracy to corporate culture — find their origins in these thinkers.

But importantly, management scholars just grabbed the bits of theory focused on designing for efficiency. They totally ignore that Weber, Durkheim, and many others contemplating the same questions warned that if we design just for efficiency, life is going to be really meaningless for people in a capitalist society. People will be reduced to cogs in a corporate machine, striving to become bigger cogs — Weber calls this void an “iron cage”. These scholars all warned that the future of Western civilization, if it followed this course, would be a pretty miserable human experience, devoid of all the things that nurture the human spirit.

I think a lot of the revolt to “reimagine capitalism” we see today is a response to this original sin, if you will, of early management thinkers that focused the bulk of their studies on design for efficiency and profits and not for the human spirit. This focus on growth at all costs has gone too far and has sucked the meaning out of people’s work and life.

SG: The root of this change, or the drive to reimagine capitalism, comes from the human need for meaning. What I also see from companies is the need to state a purpose in order to respond to an issue, a problem, a policy. Purpose feels corporate driven, but what you’re really getting to is the core human need for meaning. How does purpose and meaning intersect?

NM: Purpose, at its best, is how you describe it. It’s a company’s strategic north star that creates internal alignment. It gives people a coherent organizing principle and helps them make decisions in line with a company’s strategy. It’s a great efficiency tool.

Where I get skeptical of purpose is when it becomes predatory on the meaning crisis that we’re all feeling — whether as employees or consumers. People are having trouble understanding their place and purpose in the modern world. There are a number of reasons for this, from a capitalist system that designed out meaning from the start as I described, to the decline of traditional religions. I’d also add the rise of media in all its modern forms to this culprit list: if you’re in a small town in the middle of America watching Selling Sunset on Netflix or scrolling on Instagram looking at people’s lives that you’ll never have, you might think, “Oh my gosh, my little life means nothing.” The result of all these trends is we don’t have satisfying answers to the eternal, human question of the meaning of my life. Where we used to turn to religious institutions for answers, we now turn to Elon Musk or QAnon or Donald Trump to help us make sense of things. All of these icons are sensemaking shortcuts and emerge to fill that existential void that is particularly pointed for people right now.

Companies are often filling the same void, and they do it through purpose. This is what I mean by predatory purpose: when companies lean into ideology as a blunt instrument to get employees to work harder and consumers to buy more stuff. Though corporate purpose seems to be absolutely pervasive across industry, I think the next revolt we’ll see from consumers and employees alike is telling companies to stop trying to monopolize meaning in our lives. Our personal sense of purpose doesn’t need to be tied to the purpose of our employer.

SG: This thread of meaning is really interesting to me because it can be fulfilled in many different ways. Purpose is a blunt instrument, as you say, but meaning is more dynamic and also individually based. In this Great Resignation there’s lot of opportunities for individuals to connect with meaning. That might just be connecting with themselves or their families or their own purpose, but they still can have a job, right? Companies allowing employees to have space to find meaning allows them to be better employees even if that meaning isn’t specifically tied to the company.

NM: Absolutely. The way I see it, the Great Resignation we’re seeing is really the great recalculation of what is meaningful to me, as a whole person. We over-indexed on aligning our life’s purpose with our employer’s in the last decade or so before COVID, especially on the coasts where you have liberal elites who are looking for self-actualization through their day jobs. A lot of people’s sense of meaning came from work. A silver lining of the pandemic is that people are finding meaning elsewhere, whether family, nature, new hobbies, etc.

I think the result of this will be a shift from companies focusing on giving people purposeful work to giving people dignified work: rather than ideology and missions, I suspect we’ll see more companies focusing on paying people living and fair wages, developing equitable and inclusive systems in a diverse workplace, and respecting family and personal life boundaries. Even though I literally wrote a book on purpose and see it as a valuable management tool, I think there is a lot of emptiness in the way it tends to be used. The evolution of purposeful work, I think, looks like dignified work.

SG: I’m curious what archeologists of the future will say about this current moment of history where there’s some really heavy shit happening. Climate change is no longer theoretical. Diversity and inclusion is tied up in a lot of serious societal things that are happening, and people are facing on a very personal level. Whether or not you have a meaning and purpose as an organization, these are all conversations that you’re going to have as a company. How do the stakes of things like climate change affect this conversation and accelerate it?

NM: It’s a great question. My perspective is that the climate crisis exposes a lot of what’s questionable about the Reimagining Capitalism conversation. The first and obvious one is the Elvis principle: we need a little less conversation, a little more action. It’s great that you’ve made commitments, but let’s actually start moving toward them. This takes a lot of innovation, and excitingly, there are many promising examples emerging.

I think the climate crisis has also exposed two other big things in my mind. First, the whole Reimagining Capitalism conversation is mostly by big business, for big business. For example, while climate is the headline of convenings like Davos, the “T” word (aka. “taxes”) is notoriously off limits — the irony being that if companies actually paid fair taxes it would be a huge boost for climate initiatives. So, when thinking about climate in particular, who is setting the change agenda and who is telling the stories of the future we’re designing toward matters. There’s so much to learn from Indigenous Wisdom, so much from communities who are traditionally at the margins, who we should be designing with and not just for. Thinking about business as the lone savior of society here is a fallacy. We need to prioritize inclusive design if we’re going to get to visions and solutions that work for everyone — and not just corporations.

The other big fallacy of that corporate climate discourse — and this one might be more controversial — is that we can “grow our way out of it”, that it’s a “win-win” for business. The notion of win-win is tricky when it comes to climate, and yet, we still see CEOs and top management consultancies talking about it in this way. But most of the experts and executives I’ve spoken to urge that the win-win story is just not true, and that the promise of growth, even in the long term, through climate action might be the elephant in the room. There’s going to be trade-offs, especially in the short term. There also needs to be a reckoning around the true cost of goods and the need for “degrowth” if we’re going to save our home planet.

I hope we can start elevating ideas that offer a different way out of this mess. The signals I’m seeing are that many leaders (even corporate ones) and voices at the edges are advocating for another way, but have yet to coalesce their ideas into a movement at scale that can counter the grow-our-way-out industrialist one. I think that coalescence is coming. If we squint at its central principles, they include: inclusive design, Indiginous Wisdom, regeneration, mutuality, collective consciousness, hope, and personal transformation.

SG: Let’s say you’re a public company and you start doing that, you say, “We’re going to take out this one growth engine from the machine here because of sustainability issues.” Suddenly your stock price drops 30%. Everyone starts calling for the CEO to be fired. On the one hand if you screw the financial system there’s repercussions. On the flip side, you’re growing fast and you’re trying to do the right thing from a sustainable, regenerative perspective, but it’s hard. You’re going to make mistakes. If you do an annual sustainability report and you don’t show a clear throughline or straight up progress, people are going to call bullshit. You have activists on one side who are asking for perfection. On the other side you have shareholders who are asking for perfection. But those are competing perfections. How do we get out of that cycle?

NM: I don’t envy any executive who has to sit in the middle of that. The only narrative they can use is the “we have to grow our way out of this” one because it’s what shareholders want to hear. In my mind, this is the design challenge for companies and their executives in this era. How do we reconcile the growth problem with the climate problem?

This was a theme I heard strongly from the Thinkers50 community I’m part of. They rank top business thinkers and at their gala this year, they gave Philip Kotler the Lifetime Achievement Award. Kotler is more or less the father of modern marketing and if you’ve been to business school, you’ve probably read his textbooks. In his acceptance speech, he got up and said that marketing needs to rethink itself fundamentally. Marketing has always been a growth and demand driver, and that foundation, he said, is killing our planet. He posited that the next generation of marketing scholars and practitioners will have to grapple with new foundations of marketing that center something other than growth-at-all-costs and increasing demand endlessly. Kotler gave some really interesting start points for these new directions, from ‘de-marketing’ (or the intentional lowering of demand) and ‘sane consumption’ (or driving consumption of things that don’t destroy our planet) to a ‘circular view’ of economic decision making around which to design marketing strategies.

Though Kotler is far from the only academic I’ve talked to who thinks this way, it’s hard to overstate how powerful statements like this from someone like him are. It’s industry shifting! Anyway, I spent the whole speech trying to get my jaw off the floor.

SG: We moved from this place where we idolize the GEs, the Fords, the IBMs of the world to the new wave of technology companies. Now we’re at this inflection point of the web3 mentality, these community-based organizations or individual-based ownership via the creator economy. You can posit that it’s also tied to the Great Resignation, but individuals have been allowed to create more ownership over themselves. They can run their own businesses, decide where they want to live. You can live in Boise, Idaho, and have a job in New York or London. We’ve never had so much ability to shape our own identity, our own purpose and our own meaning. Is that what we’re missing here? People have been looking to others for meaning, but is it as simple as they need to be finding it in themselves? And if they can do that then they’re going to be less reliant on other people and they can be more actionable. Be more aggressive in voicing within their company that we need to stand for this and if you don’t I’m going to leave. And now I have the mobility to do that. Is there something to that?

NM: The Great Resignation might be how companies are experiencing this moment, but people are experiencing it as a Great Awakening and a Great Renaissance. And in renaissance there’s new ideas, new senses of self, of humanity, and of what we’re all doing in the world.

Not to go all Greek mythology on you, but on this point, there’s an amazing story a dear friend reminded me of that I don’t know why we’re not talking more about. If you’ll indulge me… a woman named Coronis was the lover of Apollo, but she fell in love with another mortal and got pregnant. Apollo, naturally, was not happy about this and had the pair killed by ‘plague tipped’ arrows. The plague kills Coronis and her lover, but also created a pandemic for all humankind.

What’s interesting is not just that there is literally a Greek myth where all of civilization is afflicted by the plague of Coronis, but that a renaissance came in its wake. This renaissance came from Coronis’ son, who she gave birth to as she was dying. He is the Greek god Asclepius, patron of healing and medicine (the medical symbol of the rod with snakes around it comes from Asclepius). But what’s so remarkable about Asclepius is that he represented a new philosophy of healing. Rather than seeing death as a one time thing that happens to the physical body at the end of life, the perspective he embodied was that, actually, people can metaphorically die and be reborn again and again throughout their life. If you think about the classic hero’s journey, Odysseus or Aeneas or Hercules always go to hell and back, they die and are reborn; this literary trope has close ties to the wellness renaissance Asclepius — born of the Coronis plague — represents. The “renaissance”, here, was that people can transform, through trauma, and so too can their societies.

In my mind, we’re experiencing a similar renaissance right now. Sure, you can see it in the psychedelic resurgence or the LA wellness movements or even the web3 philosophy, but I think it’s part of a greater reckoning and reconsideration of our own healing journeys individually and as a society, and again, our own reckoning with the meaning of our lives. The pandemic has awakened a greater sense of collective consciousness, a sense that we’re all connected as little organisms on this big Earth.

To your question about web3 — I wouldn’t go so far as to say that web3 is the infrastructure for collective consciousness. But what’s cool about web3 is exactly your point. It’s self-determined and collectively-governed. What Zuckerberg just did trying to claim the metaverse is so funny to me because he is the epitome of the walled garden web2 ethos — power concentration, building an internet around advertising dollars, etc. It’s funny to watch real web3 people roll their eyes at him trying to co-opt the concept. But the truth is, for newcomers to the Metaverse idea, he defined it and so he conceptually owns it for many. He’s not the person I want leading my renaissance.

SG: If you were a 25-year-old again with a lot of feelings about where the world is headed, and maybe feeling a little hopeless, but is stuck in a corporate job and doesn’t have the benefit of losing it suddenly, but is going through this kind of internal reckoning as the rest of the world does, what would you advise them to do?

NM: Oh such a good question. I think my perspective probably comes from the “benefit” of losing that job suddenly and the wild ride, with both ups and down, that came after. I’d probably say something like — emotionally divest from your job and invest in your own emotions, your own intuitive center. Stop blindly, anxiously lusting for “impact”, whatever that means (usually some flimsy idea about the scale of your work, in dollars or number of people engaged). Instead, find out what makes you feel dignified, what makes you feel full, what makes you feel satisfied, content. How would you nurture your brain, your heart, and your soul? Though you can of course still find value and stimulation in your day job, I’d ask: how can you design a life on the day to day and more broadly that supports those three parts of you? You’re not a cog in a machine, even though the capitalist narrative was designed to make such a position feel admirable. Don’t limit yourself by thinking that’s enough.

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Previous Mixing Board Studio Sessions are here.

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