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CEOs: You’re incredibly powerful–use that power for good

WeWork banning meat and Dick’s banning guns show how company leaders can hold themselves and their companies responsible for values beyond the bottom line.

CEOs: You’re incredibly powerful–use that power for good
[Source Photo: LightFieldStudios/iStock]

In a recent memo to its 6,000 global employees, WeWork co-founder Miguel McKelvey announced that employees will no longer be able to expense meals that include meat, nor will the company purchase red meat, poultry, or pork for WeWork events.

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This March it was revealed that the Parkland school shooter bought his weapon at Dick’s Sporting Goods. Dick’s CEO Edward Stack, a gun-owner himself, decided to remove all assault-style rifles off the shelves forever, and to stop selling guns of any kind to people younger than 21, even though the decision was “not going to be positive from a traffic standpoint and a sales standpoint.”

What does vegetarianism have to do with co-working and why would a CEO do something that would (and, in fact, did) negatively affect the bottom line?

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Big business drives so much more than our economy: it shapes our culture and society. And more and more CEOs are acting like the important thought leaders they should be, taking responsibility above and beyond pleasing their investors and boards. Or, put another way, they are finally answering to their real stakeholders–which, in a global economy, is all of us.

As WeWork’s McKelvey writes, “New research indicates that avoiding meat is one of the biggest things an individual can do to reduce their personal environmental impact . . . even more than switching to a hybrid car.”

It may not seem like saving the planet is the responsibility of a CEO of a co-working company, but the reason becomes clear when we see their stated mission: “To create a world where people work to make a life, not just a living.” WeWork believes, correctly of course, that in order to have that life, we need also a planet, and so their mission includes saving ours.

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Likewise, we might wonder what business the CEO of Dick’s has making a public statement like this, “When we take a look at what those kids and the parents and the heroes in the school, what they did, our view was if the kids can be brave enough to organize like this, we can be brave enough to take these out of here.” But when we take to heart Dick’s mission, which includes “mak[ing] a lasting impact on communities through sport,” it makes good sense.

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In 1970, Milton Friedman famously said, “the social responsibility of business is to increase profits.” For some people today, this small-minded view is giving way to a more realistic version of the truth, that increasing profits at any expense not only makes trouble for the world but misses an important opportunity to be proactively and intentionally engaged in something much more meaningful.

[Image: FC]
In Harvard Business Review, Robert Quinn and Anjan Thakor recently wrote a comprehensive article called “Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization.” They write, “A higher purpose is not about economic exchanges. It reflects something more aspirational.”

They then share the inspiring story of Gerry Anderson, president of DTE Energy, who wasn’t buying into this higher-purpose business. That is, until the 2008 recession hit and he knew he had to ask more of his workforce.

Instead of continuing to focus on the “conventional economic logic” of viewing employees “as self-interested agents . . . [who] seek to minimize personal costs and effort . . .” Anderson instead turned to his company’s higher purpose and its mission. Through a series of initiatives, backed up with leadership, onboarding, and training, the company’s purpose became, “We serve with our energy, the lifeblood of communities and the engine of progress.”

And because this mission was true, the paradigm shift worked. The company saw an increase in engagement scores, received a Gallup Great Places to Work Award five years in a row, and stock prices tripled from the end of 2008 to 2017.

The annual Edelman survey found that between 2017 and 2018 “trust decline in the U.S. is the steepest ever measured.” Nobody who has watched the news over the past two years would question this. And 79% of respondents agree that CEOs should be personally visible in sharing the company’s purpose and vision.

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While this lack of trust is a challenge for companies, it’s also an opportunity for smart and forward-thinking CEOs to step forward and speak to the truth of business as something that affects us all, all the time. We need all the help we can get.


Erica Keswin is the author of Bring Your Human to Work: Ten Sure-Fire Ways to Design a Workplace That is Good for People, Great for Business, and Just Might Change the World from McGraw Hill, publishing September 25, 2018.

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