The idea that business leaders can make a positive difference in the world isn’t unique or new. So why are we talking about it? Because the young people we’re teaching care deeply—and they might just pull it off.
The entry of millennials into the workforce is often cited as the main reason for the well-documented increase in interest about business strategies that make a positive difference in the world.
Of course, people have always wanted meaning in their work and in their lives. But the difference now is that our future leaders are refusing to settle for anything less than doing well and doing good.
Countless studies prove the positive effect of having a sense of meaningful contribution to others in our lives, and it’s no different for work.
When we feel that our day-to-day work is aligned with our values, our strengths, and our passions, we perform better: We are happier and more engaged in the workplace. We form deeper, more significant relationships with those around us. And when we have purpose, we live longer, healthier lives.
Prominent figures such as John Mackey of Whole Foods Market, Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank, Arianna Huffington of Huffington Post, and Bill Gates of Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have all publicly declared their own commitments to positive business in various forms.
Recently, Sir Richard Branson announced his convening of The B Team—the latest group of business leaders to join together around the belief that businesses can and should be solving major world problems.
Many smaller companies, perhaps less under the microscope of short-term investor expectations, have been leaders in creating positive businesses for a long time.
Cascade Engineering, for example, pioneered a program that helps welfare recipients return to the workforce in a sustainable way. Retention of program participants is now well over 90%, which means the program saves money for the state and for the company.
The Welfare to Career Program’s success did not come overnight, of course. It took years of trial and error to find a formula that worked. It is small wonder then that Cascade CEO Fred Keller has been known to describe the discipline needed for success in developing positive business strategies as "Beyond Lazy Thinking."
Keller acknowledges that his management logic in building his 1,200-person company has been to first figure out how to do good and only then consider how to make money from it. The Welfare to Career Program is now being replicated across more than 15 other companies.
Similarly, larger companies like Whole Foods Market are making bold, mission-based decisions. The success of Whole Foods Market’s innovative Detroit store has exceeded all expectations in the volume and diversity of customers it attracts and the jobs it continues to create—all while the market increases access to healthy food options to the local community.
Although not universally popular—few bold initiatives ever are—many local nonprofit activists in the Motor City point to the inclusive manner of the organic supermarket’s entry into the city as a best practice for corporate-community collaboration.
Just like Cascade’s Welfare to Career Program, the success of Whole Foods’ entry into Detroit was not an immediate success. The company actually hired a small team of people to live in the area for the year leading up to the store’s opening. This team regularly held town hall meetings to listen to the needs and concerns of the community.
This groundwork was more than worth it. The Detroit store has been so successful that the company has now launched Whole Cities Foundation, which is aimed at opening more stores in locations with limited access to healthy food at price points the customers can afford.
As leaders and educators of the next generation of business executives, it’s up to us to rethink all of the functions of business in the purview of positive business practices. Are you ready?
—Chris White is managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations and Adjunct Faculty at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, which is hosting its first Positive Business Conference on May 15-17.