Shared Value Project’s founding CEO Helen Steel shares her reflections with the impact economy before departing the organisation.
2020 will forever be remembered as a year of enormous disruption and change. The onset of the pandemic required individuals, companies and societies to respond and adapt at “warp speed” in order to overcome the challenges it imposed. It has gone on to fundamentally change the way we live and work and has so clearly impressed upon us the interdependency between business and society. Business can only thrive, if the conditions in which it operates also thrive.
This thinking of course is not new, and when Michael Porter and Mark Kramer first introduced the concept of shared value in 2011, they identified this intrinsic link between societal progress and business success and set about challenging our view of capitalism. They put forth the thesis that business could harness its knowledge, skills and assets to not only generate profits, but also create greater societal outcomes. One did not have to come at the expense of the other.
Shared value required companies to think differently about how they operate and consider what were once deemed to be external factors – such as extreme weather events or natural disasters, access to natural resources and water use or health and safety – as material to a company’s operations and outcomes. Recent events including climate change and now the health crisis have crystallised this thinking.
As founding CEO of the Shared Value Project, I have spent the past eight years in conversation with companies who have been thinking differently about their role in society. Whilst businesses are not perfect, I would argue that the majority of them were created to serve the community, not work against it. With the advent of shareholder value, some companies lost their focus and have given less consideration to customers and community as important stakeholders. This is now reversing and has been helped by vocal advocacy from leaders within the business community including Paul Polman and Larry Fink. They are encouraging companies to consider their more holistic societal purpose and embrace long-term thinking and stakeholder value.
I have had the privilege of working alongside many organisations during this time who have embraced this thinking. They have sought to create a unifying purpose that marries their fiscal objectives with their obligations to a broad range of stakeholders, including customers, employees and communities. These companies have been the exemplars, the pioneers of purpose-led business and include AIA, Enel, IAG, NAB, Nestlé and Optus, to name a few. They continue to strive to innovate and improve not only the way they conduct their businesses, but the social outcomes they achieve.
They have taught me so much and helped to shape my understanding of the possibilities that capitalism presents, and I’ve shared a few reflections here:
- Business prosperity is inherently determined by the prosperity of its people and customers – making an investment in their potential an imperative. Today, this is more pronounced than ever, with unemployment, mental ill-health and reduced social freedoms impacting productivity and economic participation. Now more than ever, it is my belief that a shared value future is the only future.
- I implore the changemakers among us to continue to embrace an impatience for progress; and to be brave and bold in how they chase it. But importantly, I’ve observed that individual passion is often best mobilised in collaboration with colleagues, corporate partners, government and not for profits. Today’s leaders need the courage to spearhead solutions, and the humility to ask for help.
- We cannot overestimate this opportunity to apply the lessons learnt from COVID-19 to longer-term crises like climate change. The pandemic backed us into creating a blueprint for disaster resilience which mustn’t be filed away – it must inform our day-to-day business. And this starts with fundamentally rethinking how we perceive and create value, and resisting a pursuit to return to “normalcy” with one for renewed thinking.
- Imagination is the single most important thing we need right now. In a world where business must adapt or die, it’s a critical currency. The companies that survive and thrive beyond 2020 will be those determined to turn the problems of today into the opportunities of tomorrow.
To be finishing this chapter of my career against such a backdrop, and at such an extraordinary time, when every company in the world is confronted with how to solve the same issue of COVID-19, seems fitting. To see what I have worked so hard to encourage during my time at SVP happening at an accelerated pace is satisfying.
I know there is a long way to go, and shared value isn’t the silver bullet, nor will it solve every social issue. It is, however, a step in the right direction, and if harnessed correctly, it has the possibility to enable business to change the world.
In the words of Fortune CEO, Alan Murray: “Companies are as complicated as people; they do good and they do bad. But these are companies that have found innovative ways to have a measurable social impact and also make profits, all at the same time.”