As the world celebrated New Year’s recently, I can imagine a resolution on the minds of many business executives: bring greater purpose to work in 2019.
Across every dimension of the economy, there is a growing movement to integrate business strategy and social purpose. Investors are now measuring environmental and social impacts alongside financial returns. Companies are developing new products with the simultaneous goals of creating shareholder and societal value. And consumers are increasingly expressing their values through their buying decisions.
Indeed, our colleagues at Deloitte recently published a report on the rise of social purpose in business, indicating that 77% of business leaders now see “social impact” as “important or very important” to their company strategy.
What is behind this rise in socially conscious business? And how do we accelerate the movement from here?
The Rise of Social Purpose in Business
Three influences are driving the private sector to do well and do good, together:
1. Top talent is demanding purpose at work.
The greatest driver of change in business today is coming from our economy’s most important ingredient: human capital. Top talent is demanding jobs where they can make a difference and make a living. More than nine in ten students in our business schools, according to a survey, now say they want to learn about social and environmental issues as a core part of their education. More than half the students in the survey said they seek to explicitly find a career in the private sector where they can make a difference. Indeed, a majority of students in the poll said they're even willing to take a 15% pay cut to find a company that aligns with their values.
Numerous theories exist for why this change in expectations is taking place, but I find the most convincing answer to be that the rising generation of talent is finding a new source of identity and meaning amidst the decline of traditional guideposts. The old saw in the U.S. is that people find their identity in “God, family, and country.” But that norm is quickly changing: one intergenerational survey found that millennials were about half as likely as their elders to rate religion and being American as an important part of their personal identity. At the same time, this generation has a greater connection between their identity and their career than ever before. As professional identity takes greater priority, employees are demanding that what they do every day for their careers aligns with their core values as people.
2. Business is viewed as better positioned to solve social challenges.
At the same time that talent wants to find purpose at work, business is emerging as the last best hope for solving urgent social challenges. In the U.S., business is now more “trusted” for information than government sources and news media. And it’s simultaneously viewed as more effective than government in leading change; in the minds of employees and consumers alike, this greater trust and effectiveness comes with a responsibility to take action.
3. Social media is forcing business to take a stand.
Alongside changing perceptions of the role of business in society, social media is holding business accountable in new ways. After the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, for example, Twitter lit up with news of which companies would still be sending CEOs to the so-called “Davos in the Dessert” summit in Saudi Arabia and which companies would be withdrawing. Companies could not be neutral; sending a leader to the summit would be seen by employees and customers alike as a failure to stand up to an authoritarian government's civil-rights abuses.
In this new social-media environment, many companies are even taking stands on controversial social issues. For decades, the conventional wisdom has been that CEOs and the companies they lead do not enter this territory. But that wisdom is quickly being replaced by a new reality where CEOs and companies are taking stands on issues that matter to their business, to their employees, and to their consumers.
Investors are still making sense of whether this new trend is good for the bottom line. In the three months immediately following its Colin Kaepernick ad, Nike saw a sales increase of 10%. Meanwhile, Dick's Sporting Goods saw a 3% decline in same-store sales following its more restricted approach to gun sales after the Parkland school shootings. But the sporting-goods chain's CEO Ed Stack has been unwavering amidst this decline. “I don’t really care what the financial implication is,” he said, because it was the right thing to do.
What Comes Next: Changing Business Education
All signs point to the rise of social purpose in business accelerating in the years ahead. Early studies of Generation Z indicate even greater commitment to integrating purpose into their careers. Meanwhile, the greatest challenges of our time, from climate change to poverty, require greater business involvement—not less—in designing social solutions.
But a key challenge is that businesses do not currently have the talent they need to fully deliver on their social purpose; only half of companies currently say they are “ready or very ready” to execute on their citizenship and social impact vision.
At Loyola, where I teach business ethics, we see this gap in talent as a charge to design new educational programs to prepare executives of the future. We aim to equip them with the full toolkit to lead business for good. Last fall, we gathered business school deans from across the U.S. to meet with Chicago’s corporate leaders and collectively identified a need to be even more intentional in business school-curriculum around preparing students to simultaneously solve for business and social value.
Energized by that conversation, we are developing new educational programming in our MBA program at Loyola to equip purpose-driven professionals with the skills, values, and networks to do well and do good in their careers.
We see this focus on marrying profit and purpose in business education as just the beginning of developing the business leadership of the future. As the private sector continues to move toward a tipping point where purpose is a “must have” for all businesses, we see a future where all business education is about achieving environmental, social, and financial goals, together.
Seth Green is the founding director of the Baumhart Center, an interdisciplinary center at Loyola University Chicago that equips executives and students with the business tools to accelerate social impact.