Three Executives Share How Social Impact Strategies Can Boost Business Success
The notion that businesses should aim to create a positive social impact — along with earning profits and rewarding shareholders — is picking up steam. Fast. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a case study about what millennials want from their workplaces. Companies are hiring for a range of new social impact roles, including some in the C-suite. New services are popping up to help consumers choose products that align with their values. For some consumer-facing companies, supporting social causes has even become integral to their branding.
Yet, there is no established playbook for boosting social impact and tying it to business innovation. Do you plant seeds among your staff and let ideas grow organically? Do you make a bold statement and enforce it from the top down? Do you need a team? A program? A mantra?
YPO hosted a panel to discuss this topic at Salesforce’s annual community event, Dreamforce 2019. Here are a few ideas that stood out.
No vision, no progress
“As business leaders, the one thing we are never forgiven for is a lack of vision,” says Yana Kakar. She is the Global Managing Partner of Dalberg Advisors and a YPO member in New York City. Kakar works with corporate leaders and investors to transform business models and investment portfolios through sustainable, responsible and impact-oriented strategies.
“We have to anticipate and evolve our organizations toward visions that continue to inspire, that continue to increase our competitiveness,” Kakar affirms. “Integrating impact into your innovation strategy should be essential to your vision. Because we’re living in a world where climate change is real, and you have to price in that risk. If you don’t, you’re going to have a problem on your hands. You’re also living in a world where competing for the very best consumers and employees is absolutely vital.”
Kakar stresses that businesses are at an “inflection point” where integrating social impact into their innovation strategies is no longer a “nice to have.” She cites a World Economic Forum Study conducted across 18 countries in which respondents indicated that the No. 1 priority of businesses should be to “improve society.”
She advises executives to pick two or three KPIs related to social impact goals and then insist that those get added to the calendar for board or management team discussions. “Sort of like progress check-ins,” Kakar suggests, “because what is measured matters.”
Rethink old methods and embrace truth-tellers
“For me, innovation is about looking at the way we’ve always done things and questioning if it really is the best way,” says Erin Gallagher, a long-time marketing executive who recently founded Have Her Back, a consultancy working with companies to advance gender equity while driving business outcomes.
Gallagher warns that questioning the way your business operates and how decisions are made can make some very uncomfortable. “Doing something different is hard. It costs money and it takes time,” she maintains. “But the reality is, if you’re not doing that right now and you’re not thinking about it, you will become irrelevant because others are going to sort it out. Your customers are going to call you out and your people are going to find out.”
Employee activism is on the rise and that should motivate leaders. “You have to move from good intentions to intentional action,” Gallagher emphasizes. “Employees are going to tell you what they need if you aren’t giving it to them. They’re going to tell the public, too. Don’t wait until you’re in crisis to prioritize this.”
According to Gallagher, the best way to prioritize positive impact is to empower employees to tell the truth. “If you surround yourself with people who are telling you that you’re doing the right thing all the time, you’re in trouble. It’s time to bring other folks into your midst who will give you real feedback. Psychological safety is the No. 1 way to sustain innovation and to keep your people talking to you about what’s going well and what’s not.”
Bake it into company culture
When Salesforce was founded, Marc Benioff had a vision of including philanthropy along with profitability as a core pillar undergirding the company. Now known as the 1-1-1 model, Salesforce dedicates 1% of its equity, 1% of its product, and 1% of employees’ time to the community. Salesforce also co-founded Pledge 1%, to inspire other companies and entrepreneurs to leverage their assets as a force for good.
Matt Garratt is Senior Vice President, Managing Partner at Salesforce Ventures, which has more than 275 portfolio companies across 17 countries. Garratt has mentored startups on all aspects of business growth and organizational development, including the adoption of social impact strategies.
He explains that Salesforce wants to impart the benefits of becoming a purpose-driven organization to all the startups it invests in but cautions this can’t be something businesses just think about once in a while. “This has to be a core value. It has to be baked into how you operate the company,” he declares.
One way he gets startups to see the value of this ethos is to substitute a corporate event with an opportunity to volunteer. “The dinners we go to as a team are great, but the events where we are working for Habitat for Humanity or something like that are much more meaningful, and everyone has just as good of a time,” Garratt says.
“Sometimes we assemble portfolio companies in a city to do something together. The support and turnout is amazing and we get feedback from CEOs that it’s transformative for their organizations,” Garratt adds. “Aligning with a higher goal not only energizes teams, it helps with recruiting and retention. That’s huge. It’s the No. 1 benefit a lot of CEOs talk about.”
There’s no easy button
All three leaders emphasize the importance of vigilance and authenticity if you’re planning to change — or even maintain — a corporate philosophy around creating social impact.
“It’s not like you suddenly arrive,” says Garratt. “You have to stay on top of it.”
“We’re very proud of where we are, but it’s a struggle to keep the needle where we’d like it to be,” reveals Kakar. “It’s a priority until something matters more.”
Gallagher encourages leaders to dive in and make changes while on the journey. She puts it this way: “The next generation is going to make us look real silly, real soon. We’re already noticing that. So, do you want to do this now when you’re growing and creating a culture? Or do you want to fix things later?”
Salesforce is a YPO global strategic partner.