Successful companies look different today

“Imagine you’re hosting a dinner party, and you can invite ten people, living or dead. Who would they be?” It’s a question that turns out to be a fabulous way to get to know what’s important to the respondent. But more interesting, perhaps, is the follow up: “Why them?”

I was quickly descending down a rabbit hole of introspection.

Winston Churchill for his leadership, because I admire his decisiveness in the face of horrifying challenges. My grandfather for his compassion, because I respect people who respect people. And Muhammad Yunus for his irreverence, because I am impressed by people who comfortably and confidently speak truth to power.

I was also tempted to cite Carnegie. Gates. Buffett. Branson. And then I stopped short as two questions struck me…

Where are the women? And why am I hesitating to name these titans of business?

These aren’t simple questions. They reveal a predominance of patriarchy in societies that sorely need to move from zero sum to ‘sum of us.’ They point toward outdated models of capitalism that celebrate individuals over social value. And they remind me of the complexities of leadership when the inertia of established systems is overwhelming.

Thankfully, they also remind me of our mission at Junxion —to catalyse social and environmental progress by supporting social entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs who are leading the next generation of business.

The next generation of business

In the past 20 years, and in rapid acceleration during the past decade, business models and strategies that integrate social and environmental responsibility are getting more and more attention. Pioneers like Ben & Jerry’s, Grameen Bank and Barefoot College have demonstrated that companies can achieve enduring financial success without cashing in on the communities that support them or our shared environment.

These trailblazers have charted a course for the rapid growth of ‘social ventures,’ ‘social enterprises’ and ‘socially responsible businesses’—a collection of topics that has moved from the studious offices of liberal think tanks to the front pages of magazines like Fortune and Entrepreneur.

Rather than accumulating vast wealth, and then ‘giving back’ (a turn of phrase that implies previous ‘taking,’ beyond the bounds of fairness), admired leaders are weaving social purpose into their businesses from day one.

[su_quote]Rather than accumulating vast wealth, and then ‘giving back’ (a turn of phrase that implies previous ‘taking’, beyond the bounds of fairness), admired leaders are weaving social purpose into their business from day one.[/su_quote]

Yet these new approaches to enterprise aren’t driven entirely by altruism. As social media-driven transparency exposes challenges up and down corporations’ supply chains, leaders are recognising that their reputations—and their bottom lines—are influenced by factors beyond the boundaries of their organizations. And as climate change continues to accelerate, they’re finally realising that sustainability is not a theoretical nice-to-have, but a strategic priority.

Like any new sector, the most important characteristics of social enterprises have been identified through trial and error. As with any venture, myriad pressures can shape a company’s capacity for growth and opportunities for success. But best practices are emerging. Whether business owners and operators self-identify as social entrepreneurs or not, there are lessons to be learned that are shaping the future of business.

Value means more than revenue

The corporations that activists vilify tend to be the ones that pursue profits at the expense of everything else. They view fiduciary responsibility as the sole mode of governance responsibility. And they fail to integrate outside influences in considerations of strategy, planning and long term value creation.

This is akin to assuming that the best value in a cup of coffee is the cheapest one. Yet the outrageous success of Starbucks, the flourishing of fair trade farmer cooperatives in South America, and western consumers’ comfort with paying more than pocket change for their morning cup all point to a simple fact: value is more than money.

Communities are more than locations

Companies are more often being held to a social license to operate—a license that is not authored by their Boards or government regulators, but by stakeholders outside their organizations. Crystal clear is the inherent misalignment of the current system—“an economic system where doing good and doing business are apparently polar opposites,“ as Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus put it in a recent presentation to Deloitte Social Innovation Pioneers in the UK.

[su_quote]Companies are more often being held to a social license to operate—a license that is not authored by their Boards or government regulators, but by stakeholders outside their organisations.[/su_quote]

Companies that lead in public engagement also tend to lead in brand equity. Every company is actually a community unto itself, and a part of a broader community of influencers—its supply chain. Upstream and downstream, stakeholder engagement fosters trust in companies’ motivations, mitigating the public relations risks that naturally emerge from controversial decisions, which are bound to be necessary from time to time. Openness breeds trust, and trust influences loyalty, which in turn drives brand equity.

Communication is more than advertising

Advertising is dead. It just hasn’t realized it yet. First, media changed: welcome to the Netflix generation, where commercials have completely disappeared. Second, new media are replacing broadcasting and persuasion with conversation—outreach and engagement are driving successful marketing. Technology is allowing one-to-one communications, and enabling mass customisation and new means and modes of customer experience management.

Success is more than profit

What’s more valuable—giving gainful employment to three people, or delivering their salaries to shareholders as a dividend? A favourite artist once wrote, “The rich get richer. The poor get the picture.” The social equity issues are patently obvious. And we admire the social benefactors far more than the sharks of Wall Street.

Finding the New Heroes of Business

72% of college students want a job that has a social impact
96% of consumers worldwide say it’s very important that companies address societal issues

What’s profoundly confidence-inspiring is that these new heroes of business are everywhere. They’re the 72% of college students who feel it’s important to select a job in which they feel they’ll have a social impact. They’re the 96% of consumers worldwide who say it’s very important to them that companies change the way they operate to address societal issues. And they’re the countless grassroots entrepreneurs that are disrupting supply chains and economic systems around the world, and sharing lessons, best practices and business models with their compatriots via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

They’re coming together through events like Sustainable Brands, which recently announced it will double its conferences in 2014, the Skoll World Forum and Social Venture Network.

And one more thing—about that dream dinner table.

At the forefront of this new age of business are women like Amy Hall, the visionary social impact leader at Eileen Fisher; Libba Pinchot, the founder of Bainbridge Graduate Institute; Pam Chaloult, the COO at BALLE; and Deb Nelson, the CEO at Social Venture Network. Leaders, all, who personify the ‘change we seek.’