By Tamara Howard
Virtually unspoken in the business world two decades ago, these words appear with increasing frequency in corporate reports and business press. Can you imagine the CEO of a Fortune 500 business admitting that practicing meditation helps with the job? Well, 14 of them just did in an article for BusinessInsider. Even the Harvard Business Review regularly publishes articles supporting the benefits to businesses who truly address sustainability issues. What’s happening? What’s driving this change from a myopic focus on ‘the bottom line’ to a more balanced, values-driven culture? Is it just a flash in the pan?
The simple answer is people; all of these words relate to people, not profits. A more precise answer is responsibility toward people. Large corporations wield great power and with this power comes responsibility.
In recent years, businesses – particularly multinationals – have incorporated technology into the very fabric of the business and, in doing so, replaced functions formerly carried out by human beings. Technological advances enabled increased efficiencies with benefits accruing directly to the bottom line. Many roles are now automated, and even customer service and human resources functions succumbed to automation. Only a business’s shareholders are well served by ever-increasing profits.
But what about the customers? Employees? Suppliers? The environment? For the past few decades, these stakeholders have been virtually ignored.
Ironically, the same technology that enabled this problem for the stakeholders has empowered them. There is now more transparency about the impact business is having overall. For example, an organization might produce big profits but use suppliers in developing countries with very poor working conditions. However, it’s not just customers who consider the values of a potential supplier; what’s new and exciting is that employees are also looking on and voting with their feet.
In recent years, many employees started to leave the corporate world entirely. This exodus includes some of the ‘best and brightest’ who would traditionally have been future corporate leaders. Many are giving up high-paying jobs to work in socially-focused businesses or charities, and many look for businesses that take a more balanced view of all a company’s stakeholders.
But leaving the corporate world is not the only answer. Some individuals have managed to drive change within their organizations, and have managed give their jobs more social meaning. However, those with the greatest impact sit at the top of the organization. Whole Foods is an often cited as an example of a successful and profitable business which embodies ‘balanced’ social values. However, until recently such examples were few and far between.
Today, there is a dawning realization within companies that their business has become ‘unbalanced,' but business leaders face a challenge: Where to start? With themselves? With employees? Corporate responsibility? Sustainability? For large, multinational businesses with tens or hundreds of thousands of employees, driven by quarterly reporting, it’s hard to know where to begin. But more and more businesses are trying, and there are now many companies who can help them.
With many entry points to solving this problem, most efforts begin with employees. If a business and its employees live the right values, then the rest of the stakeholders benefit. Activities like mindfulness training, employee social responsibility programs, and community and environmental activities are now part of most business’s agendas. The good news is that recent studies show that by making employees a top priority, profits follow. Careful rebalancing of business priorities can be good business too.
So this trend is no flash in the pan – it is the future.
Tamara Howard is a management consultant who, over the past decades, has worked in and consulted to large multinationals. In recent years she has spotted a trend amongst employees of these large business and, so has expanded her consulting role to include social enterprises and not-for-profits. She also tries to help large organisations and the individuals within them, adjust to a new, business zeitgeist. In her capacity as a Board Member of the Harvard Club of the United Kingdom, she co-hosts an event – Putting the Soul Back into Business – which brings together individuals who seek purpose in their jobs with other who have found ‘a solution’. Tamara is based near Oxford, in the United Kingdom.