Business Leaders Play A Role in Alleviating Our Troublesome Times. Amid today’s fractious political times and societal divisions, it may be time for business leaders and their organizations to step into the breach to narrow the divide and help solve societal problems. The very real alternative is continued gridlock, leading to problems deteriorating beyond of the scale of solvability, resulting in a damaged economy, and diminished global competitive advantage.
It could be generations, if at all, before the toxicity of our political system recedes enough for elected officials to achieve meaningful bipartisan work. Instead, business can step into the fray and jump-start a better catalyst: capitalism.
Business leaders and their organizations are their own societies, each with their own economic engine and ones in which employees and staff have shared cultures and many shared values. As a critical mass, they have the power to lead change and hold elected officials accountable for their deeds—or lack of them.
The relatively recent concept of conscious capitalism holds that companies and organizations should operate serving all involved stakeholders—including employees, the environment and consumers—not just their management teams and shareholders. The idea was originated by Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey and marketing professor Raj Sisodia, who wrote a New York Times- and Wall Street Journal-best-selling book about the topic. Markey went on to create an eponymous nonprofit organization that has chapters in more than two dozen U.S. cities and 10 countries.
“We need businesses to serve as institutions premised on cooperation and collaboration for the betterment of everyone they impact,” the organization espouses. “And we need business leaders to step up as the moral exemplars of society. Some business leaders are already doing so. More should. More should use the resources at their disposal to create value for all individuals they touch. More should use their bully pulpit to condemn that which is obviously wrong, even in the face of great opposition and risk to short-term returns.”
Now more than ever, businesses should heed this call.
In its 2022 annual “Trust Barometer” global survey, global PR company Edelman saw business solidify its position as the world’s most trusted of the collective institutions of government, business, NGOs and the media. And in another 2021 analysis by fellow PR firm Porter Novelli, 95% of respondents said that recent social, cultural and economic challenges have made them more aware of how they and their organizations can impact society. But those executives also noted that they’re struggling with how to act most effectively: 82% found it challenging to determine if, when and how to address hot-button societal issues. Some of their corporate brethren are showing them the way.
Walking the Talk
Pino Audia, professor of management and organizations at Dartmouth University’s Tuck School of Business, contends that business leaders want to do right by society more than many may think. Audia grounded that observation in how global companies, including Walmart, McDonald’s, Amazon, Ikea, and others began boosting wages of entry-level workers above the U.S. federal minimum wage—even before the so called “Great Resignation” left companies scrambling to hire and retain all levels of talent.
Other examples of businesses rising to this challenge include management consulting behemoth McKinsey & Co. significantly expanding and enhancing its parental leave policy earlier this year; and global retailer Wal-Mart in recent years instituting sweeping changes to its sale and regulatory oversight of firearms and large-capacity ammunition magazines. Since 2015, Salesforce has championed efforts to pressure state legislators in at least four states to either enact legislation that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, or to amend laws that would have allowed discrimination because of sexual orientation or identity. And very recently, corporations including General Mills, VW, and Pfizer have paused their substantial advertising expenditures on social media heavyweight Twitter, because of the feared increase in objectionable content since its chaotic acquisition by Elon Musk.
Business at a Crossroads
Corporate leaders have long been required to walk a fine line between exerting leadership on policy and legislative issues and not becoming overtly political. But given the public’s perception of business and the authority and power it wields, the risk now is not doing too much, but doing too little.
“Business has a clear choice,” Dave Samson, Edelman’s global vice chairman of corporate affairs, wrote about the firm’s latest Trust Barometer. “One is the path of least resistance, in which leaders continue to gaze up at the mountain in the false hope others will take the climb, resulting in further public cynicism and perpetuating the cycle of distrust. The other is to embrace the mantle of leadership, enabling all institutions to regain solid footing to ascend the trail that will lead to a better future for all.” Doing so means that “business will emerge as a truly stabilizing force for society,” he noted.
Given what’s at stake, isn’t this path worth taking?
Written by Stephanie Nora White.
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