In the meetings and publications of the local business networks, ‘business as usual’ seems to be the leading message for 2020—more growth, more innovation, more profits, end of familiar story. At a recent business networking event I was the only one I heard mention anything related to sustainability or social impact of businesses at all, save one nonprofit considering social enterprise as a way to replace the revenue lost to public funding cuts. This concerns me.
I have met several business leaders locally who, at least in private conversations, are looking to make a change in 2020 and take their organizations in a new direction, in keeping with the times of change around us, but I don’t hear this expressed publicly very much. I hope to offer some encouragement here for business leaders to find their voices and join me in making 2020 a year for real change.
Challenging Trends Continue to Intensify
In Ontario, as in most regions in the global North, we expect to see several trends continue and intensify: decreases in affordability of housing, especially in urban centres; increases in regular migrants and refugees arriving; decreases to funding for public goods and services; and increasing polarization and tension in local and regional politics related to all three. In general we can expect the extreme weather events associated with climate change, the rapid cycle of innovation and obsolescence in consumer technology, and the overall social and economic disruption associated with systemic abuse of power by the wealthy to accelerate.
Our ancestors and our descendants look to us expectantly.
Across the board, there is growing acceptance by the public and many businesses leaders of the fact that things are spinning out of control in a way that presents an existential risk not only to the global economy but to human civilization as we know it. Our ancestors and descendants look to us expectantly. Almost nobody these days is ignorant of what is at stake, even if there is deep disagreement about how to respond.
Governments are unlikely to develop sufficient solutions or responses to these complex and overlapping crises on their own—not with Australia’s PM openly mocking climate change activists with a lump of coal in hand, the UK’s Boris Johnson and US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from international collaborations on climate change, or British Columbia’s premier Horgan choosing colonial violence in support of pipelines over the pleas of both indigenous leaders and the UN. These problems will also certainly not “take care of themselves” by doubling down on magical thinking about the ‘invisible hand’ of free markets. There is growing public pressure on business leaders to step up to their share of responsibility for making strong and healthy communities a priority, or at the very least acting to avoid preventable catastrophic losses to the ecosphere and human life.
I don’t want to discourage anyone, but rather acknowledge that the scale and complexity of the issues can be deterrents, and it’s easy enough to get caught in “analysis paralysis”, and follow the relative safety of the crowd… but that’s an easy strategic blunder to avoid, and where those companies who are leading on social purpose are already making great gains over the late followers. Consider talent attraction and retention: if your business is not making a credible, compelling case that what you do is relevant and valuable, in this broader context of massive global change, you are choosing from the bottom 10% of the talent pool in your new hires—this fact is not news. For years, employers with a purpose have been attracting top talent—and it’s showing. Purpose-driven companies outperform financial markets by 42%.
If you are reading this and realizing you’re behind and need to catch up, here are some ideas to get 2020 off to a good start—a “3 step program” if you will:
- Start with an open mind: Conduct research on employee and customer values and interests. A short survey or thoughtful sample of interviews can help bring your attention to issues and concerns that would benefit from your attention. You can avoid the PR blunder of making a well-intentioned but poorly researched gesture by committing the time to better understand the issues in your area or sector so you can make confident first steps.
- Talk to your team: Convene an internal discussion or workshop with your leadership team. Be prepared to engage with skeptics—and to dismiss cynics. Depending on your team, you may wish to prepare a specific statement that defines the issue of concern, a proposed action, and the expected impacts, to keep the conversation focused. It is completely reasonable to constrain the number of issues you take into consideration so you do not get overwhelmed by trying to consider all possible stakeholders and issues. There are many ways to make a sound business case for your social purpose (beyond just the talent retention angle) depending on your specific industry and sector.
- Put your money where your mouth is: If you’re serious, dedicate enough time and budget to your initial public commitments to philanthropic or social causes to be taken seriously. The reputational risk of doing too little, or nothing, is far greater than the risk of trying something new.
So to recap, here’s what it does, and doesn’t, mean to commit your business to social purpose:
Good luck and best wishes to you with your ambitions in 2020.
Garth Yule is Managing Director at Junxion and is leading the development of our presence in Toronto. Reach him via [email protected]