If the infrastructure and budget reconciliation bills pass Congress — still by no means a certainty — they deserve praise, both as a policy matter and as a sign that governing, in Washington, still is possible. At the same time, the fact that it took multiple rounds of negotiation and last-minute legislative heroics to fix our aging infrastructure, reduce prescription drug prices, and adopt other measures popular with a majority of Americans can’t be seen as a sign of health of our system of self-government.
Does this experience offer any hope that our federal government can address serious, even existential issues? Not much. The acceleration of climate change; the decades-long failure to train our workforce for an economy defined by technology; our systemic racial, economic, and cultural inequities — each of these problems will require a sustained bipartisan effort, not a cobbled-together coalition. Tribal politics and its force multipliers — social media, disinformation — will continue to work assiduously against that.
What, then, of the private sector?
In the struggle for equity and economic opportunity, companies have significant tools in their kits. They have resources, capacity to do big things, widely transferable expertise, data and the insights that are drawn from it, flexibility, and credibility. According to recent research by Edelman, private companies are among the most trusted institutions in the country.
The incapacities of government create an even greater imperative for companies to act. Customers expect it; employees demand it. There’s a growing sense that companies’ enormous influence on our lives gives them an obligation to apply their wealth and power toward positive societal ends.
Given all this, it has become commonplace for CEOs to develop 'purpose-driven' agendas, hire chief purpose officers, and sign collective declarations of intent regarding climate change, racial equity, and other pressing issues. Having long worked in developing such agendas and drafting such declarations, we would respectfully note they mean little in themselves.
The premium is, as it must be, on action. CEOs must step in and step up, individually and in concert — not to solve every problem but to fix the ones that their companies are best equipped to fix, the ones that no one else has the capacity to fix. This, now more than ever, is what enlightened corporate leadership looks like.
Many of the CEOs who share this perspective are unclear how to put it into effect. They’re struggling to distinguish the important issues that fall within their purview from the important issues that don’t. And even when that decision is made, they’re struggling to find the right way to articulate it. For most, this is new and treacherous territory.
But there is a pathway through it. In our experience, it’s a three-part process:
- Find your story. Companies can’t do everything and don’t have to take a position on every issue. Instead, CEOs should focus on identifying unmet needs and existential issues that matter most to their company, and where they can apply their unique strengths to make a difference.
- Tell your story. These initiatives, taken together, tell a larger story — an optimistic, inclusive, hopeful narrative that explains how they will help solve problems and create opportunities in the communities where the company operates.
- Live your story. At a time when truth, fairness, and accountability are under assault, leaders can model these values by living them — and by embedding them in their company’s culture, its operations, even its marketing.
A number of high-profile CEOs are already embodying these practices and, as a result, making a tangible, measurable difference:
- Beth Ford, Land O’Lakes: The American Connection Project Broadband Coalition, convened by Land O’Lakes, has brought together more than 150 organisations to work together in bridging the digital divide. The Coalition is advocating for public and private sector investment to bring high-speed internet infrastructure to rural areas, and the company is contributing its own resources to facilitate remote education, health and mental health services, and job opportunities.
- Ryan Gellert, Patagonia: Patagonia Action Works connects people to environmental organisations in their communities. Patagonia also launched 1% for the Planet, an alliance of businesses that understand the necessity of protecting the natural environment — both as a matter of public health and, not incidentally, of profit and loss. 1% for the Planet follows in the company’s commitment to pledging 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment since 1985.
- Marvin Ellison, Lowe’s: Lowe’s is teaming up with Daymond John, star of ABC’s Shark Tank, to provide mentoring and networking opportunities for a diverse group of women, people of colour, veterans, and other small business owners. They’re invited to pitch to Lowe’s executives to land their product on Lowes.com or in stores.
Many of these efforts go well beyond traditional notions of corporate philanthropy and aim to address deeply rooted problems. For that reason, they stretch the already-demanding job of CEO even further. They also carry meaningful risks of controversy or failure. But the risks of inaction, as more and more CEOs recognise, are even greater.
Ultimately, these companies will be judged by their results, and whether their actions fulfill their big ambitions. In no scenario does their work obviate the need for serious, timely governmental policy.
And as corporate leaders understand, risks and rewards are intrinsically linked. For companies that apply their enormous resources, their skills and innovative capacity, and their scale and standing to create lasting change, the opportunity will far transcend the bottom line.
Rob Shepardson is co-founder and partner of SS+K. Jeff Shesol is co-founder and partner of West Wing Writers.