“I believe we can do well by doing good.” This has been one of Michael Dell’s core values — just last month, he and his wife Susan gave $38 million to combat homelessness in their hometown Austin, Texas.
Doing well by doing good is also one of the themes running through Dell’s new book. Play Nice But Win: A CEO’s Journey from Founder to Leader takes its title from what his mother used to tell him and his brothers when they went out to play streetball. As founder and CEO of Dell Technologies, Dell is an incredibly resilient entrepreneur who has lived a remarkable life, and his book shows that, yes, you can win by playing nice. But it also illustrates that building a company in which everybody — employees, customers, shareholders, communities and the planet — can thrive can go hand in hand with long-term success. And Dell was pioneering this style of leadership long before it was called “stakeholder capitalism.”
The book opens in 2013, in the middle of what would become a series of pitched battles between Dell and Carl Icahn, as the activist investor tries to take control of the company Michael Dell started in 1984 from his freshman dorm room at the University of Texas. The story has many twists and turns, as Dell takes the company public, then takes it private before finally taking it public again.
While many business books are about the wheeling and dealing of the deal-making — and there’s plenty of that here, much of it riveting — what also comes through is how Dell’s commitment to his values guides him through the shoals. In 1988, Dell wrote those values down. For instance:
“The company will strive to satisfy the legitimate claims of all parties that have a stake in the business: customers, employees, suppliers, special-interest groups, communities, and shareholders.”
“People are the greatest asset of the company. We will provide an environment that attracts, motivates, and retains the best people in our industry. Employees will participate in decisions that affect their own work and receive the rewards that come as a result of their efforts. We will always reward superior performance.”
It’s much more common today to hear business leaders espousing such values — and companies that don’t follow them are finding themselves on the wrong side of the Great Resignation. Play Nice But Win shows just how ahead of his time Dell was, not just in the technology the company was offering, but in his thinking about what a company owes the public and its own employees.
At the same time Dell is showing the value of remaining true to his principles, he also shows the necessity of being resilient and being able to adapt to change. “The rate of change is only increasing,” he writes. “It will not slow down in the future… You must change or die.”
What helps Dell navigate those constant changes, and deal with the inevitable setbacks — not to mention the activist investor sharks constantly circling — is his enduring sense of optimism. As he writes, “basically, I just feel it’s a better way to live than the alternative. You don’t start a company if you’re not an optimist.”
And you certainly don’t lead one for nearly 40 years the way Dell has without a strong sense of mission and purpose. “Running a profitable business has always been crucial to me: profit doesn’t just mean my personal success,” he writes. “A company’s success, as I see it, means so much more than making money for its team members and shareholders. I believe we can do well by doing good. Dell has always strived to create a benefit for the world — to be a strong force for good in the technological present and future that I’m so hopeful about.”
At a time when we’re all more clear-eyed about the many ways technology can consume us, it’s great to read a story that shows how technology, when guided by human values, can be a force for good.
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