We may be happy to eat the food that multinationals make, and fly in their aircraft, and even take the pills they have invented. But many of us say we don’t trust corporations, and we don’t trust the people who lead them. Some are even willing to go out onto the streets to make this clear. It seems to me that now is the time for corporations and their leaders to be more explicit and transparent about their purpose and goals.
To do this, corporations have to address three questions: how is leadership ensuring there is sufficient inner resilience to take the corporation through these turbulent times? What is the corporation doing to positively anchor itself in its neighborhood and supply chains? And what role is it playing in solving global challenges such as climate change, endemic youth unemployment, and inequality?
Some leaders are already stepping up. When Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman committed to significantly reducing the environmental footprint of his corporation, he was making a purposeful statement about climate change. When Danone’s CEO Franck Riboud committed over seventy million euros to the Danone.Communities project, he was making a purposeful statement about the role of the corporation in society. When the CEOs of Indian IT giants Infosys, TCS and Wipro built a host of ways to educate Indian children, they were making a statement about their role in India.
These role models are crucial. We need to see more – and at scale! Corporations are unique as institutions in having extraordinary access to the most talented minds from across the world, and in having the innovation processes to bring these minds together in the most productive way. Many have honed their scaling and mobilization capabilities in a way that is far superior to governments and NGOs. Some have become adept at forming global alliances, even with their competitors.
These precious competencies – innovation, scaling and alliances – are crucial to solving global challenges. In the past, it may have been appropriate for corporation to use them in the service of their financial stakeholders, but this is no longer appropriate. The same forces of technology and globalization that have enabled corporations to prosper in the last decades have also brought forward profound global challenges. Those corporations that will prosper in the future will do so because their shareholders, consumers and employees see their leaders describing and living a greater purpose. This is a purpose that sees the role of the corporations not only from the ‘inside’, but also from the ‘outside’, in its neighborhoods and supply chains, and in an increasingly global context.
Corporations must be less precious about their precious competencies. Without an outer focus, those who are taking to the streets to demonstrate against corporations may find more people joining them, and more to be angry about.