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Capitalism Post-COVID: Doing Good To Become Great

There is nothing more revelatory than a crisis. Turn the world upside down, shake, and see how countries, companies and couples react. It’s like an extended master class in leadership. You watch the great, the good and the terrifyingly ugly play out across the globe. After looking at countries and couples, I take a look here at how companies are coping. Some are showing the way and strengthening their brands – while others are killing them, or simply being swept away by the tides of history or a lack of cash.

Here are a few inspirational examples that nourish a new hash tag that’s trending, #GoodAfterCovid19. Some may dismiss these corporate responses as ‘just PR’ but if you lean glass-half-fullwards, you may glimpse a window slowly opening to a better future. Radical ideas take decades to move from margin to mainstream. Crises can accelerate shifts. This time, the idea going viral is that ‘conscious capitalism’ might just be the model to move the world forward.

There will be a decade’s-worth of business school case studies on corporate reactions and responses to the crisis. But four trends are already surfacing in the companies that aren’t “wasting a good crisis.” They are the first-movers in doing good and becoming great.

Humanising Business

CEOs are more than just the pretty face of their businesses. They are increasingly visible (online and off) to audiences both internal and external. We know CEOs are usually taller than average, more successful than their peers, and overwhelmingly men. But now they also need to be human, vulnerable and inclusive – as a mark of strength. Their ability to communicate and connect with the world at large is a challenging addition to an already high-pressure job. As their power and influence increase, so does the scrutiny of their purpose and their skill in sharing it. Sixty-nine of the 100 wealthiest global entities are companies, not governments. The appetite from employees, consumers and regulators for a beating heart at the centre of a profit-driven system grows as their dominance does. Like the country leaders I profiled earlier, love and empathy are increasingly valued in business too. And their response to Covid-19 will make – and break – their reputations.

Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson’s was an early example of exemplary. In no small part because he was one of the first to step up and speak, addressing the reality of the storm that had just hit his 93-year-old business. It’s also the first time he appeared bald, a result of his cancer treatment. He speaks compassionately, recognising and naming the disruption for people across the globe. And he tells it truthfully and transparently, fearlessly admitting that business is down 70%. This combination of vulnerability and courage builds trust, one of the most valuable assets in business for tomorrow. Sorenson is also co-chair of the Business Roundtable’s Covid-19 Taskforce (see more below).

Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, was converting auto factories to ventilator production before most companies had even acknowledged what was about to land on their balance sheets. A reality that Donald Trump tried to sully by accusing the company of doing nothing. She also led from the heart, integrating humanity into leadership in an explicit way. She explained in an interview with the President of MIT, “I think all of us have been impacted by COVID differently. Some of us may have lost a loved one. Some of us may have people who work on the front line, so I think it’s also approaching it with a lot of patience and understanding so we can address people’s concerns so they truly understand that they’re in a safe environment.” Fortune magazine named her one of the World’s Greatest Leaders in their feature on Heroes of the Pandemic.

WHAT GREAT CEOs DO: Balance the head and the heart. There’s been an over-reliance on the head in business; balance it with emotions and empathy. This takes courage. As does admitting you don’t know if you really don’t. Oscar Wilde described a cynic as someone who knows “the price of everything and the value of nothing.” A heartless CEO is the same. (Re)define the company values and use them to connect with all your stakeholders (see below).

Moving Beyond ‘Shareholder Value’

For decades, companies were meant to focus on only one thing: shareholder value. The neo-liberal philosophies expounded by economists like Milton Friedman in the 1970s took hold in the last decades of the 20th century and dominated… everything. Government was to be minimised, shareholder returns to be maximised. Period. The Business Roundtable, an association of America’s leading CEOs has, since 1978, hammered the shareholder-primacy message home in its principles of corporate governance. The 2008 financial crisis cracked this logic open. By the summer of 2019, business was re-inventing itself, and 181 CEOs signed a declaration that “the purpose of a company is to serve all its stakeholders – customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.” Even Bridgewater hedge fund founder Ray Dalio is arguing for an overhaul of capitalism. The pandemic pushed into this already-swinging pendulum – exponentially – and is revealing which companies are walking the new talk.

In a memo detailing what JP Morgan is doing to support employees and customers, CEO Jamie Dimon wrote: “It is my fervent hope that we use this crisis as a catalyst to rebuild an economy that creates and sustains opportunity for dramatically more people, especially those who have been left behind for too long…The last few months have laid bare the reality that, even before the pandemic hit, far too many people were living on the edge.” Dimon, who underwent emergency heart surgery in March, lists the loans the bank has made in the past two months: $45 billion of new credit for Covid-hit customers, $950 million in new loans for small businesses and some $50 million in charitable donations to non-profits.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, continues as the role model he’s become for business leaders, with a note-perfect response to the crisis: fast, clear and human. Nadella has shared that his empathy is grounded in his family, as his son, who suffers from cerebral palsy, is especially vulnerable to Covid-19. He’s also a role model of the modern inclusivity mantra of business as one of the few foreign-born CEOs on the Fortune 100 (there are only 3%). Writing in the Financial Times, he acknowledges “it is a societal failure when we undervalue institutions and the critical services they provide. What we need is citizens and customers to demand co-ordination and partnership across sectors.” He outlines how Microsoft is doing just that, partnering with everyone from health care providers to schools.

Walmart, which employs 1.5 million people in the US and over 2.2 million globally, is rarely perceived as a paragon of caring employers. The crisis is an opportunity to improve this image, especially in comparison to competitors like Amazon. The company is giving cash bonuses to employees totalling some $390 million in 2020, as well as discounts on food shopping. Its US CEO, John Furner, has written personal notes of gratitude and recognition to staff’s efforts during the crisis. Some may scoff at the corporate image management, but not all companies are putting their money where their (professed) morals are.

Some brands are in a position to beautifully expand their power and attraction simply by giving away existing products or extending their reach and engagement. That’s what LEGO is doing with its #LetsBuildTogether initiative. With UNESCO reporting that 80% of the world’s kids are out of school, LEGO is trying to help harried parents around the globe keep their kids entertained – and educated – with daily inspiration, content and challenges. In addition to children-focused charitable giving and dedicating factories to making protective glasses and masks, the company is donating 500,000 LEGO sets to children in need around the world. Global CMO Julia Goldin says it was all designed, in a matter of weeks, to “help children keep developing life-long skills such as critical thinking, creativity, and problem solving while out of school, and help parents ease the burden of balancing work, school and home life all under one roof during lockdown.”

WHAT GREAT COMPANIES DO: Leverage their skills and know-how for the greater good. Broaden the definition of what the company’s core products and services are or could become (eg. Manufacturing cars to making ventilators, producing toys to educating kids) and give your brand a much bigger purpose that is tangible and visible to the communities you seek to serve.

Dumping Old Divides

One of the lessons of this pandemic is that no single CEO, company or country can address the challenges we face. We need creative new partnerships across increasingly obsolete old divides – between public and private, for-profit and non-profit. “Growing convergence between these players is being accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic,” says Manny Amadi, the CEO of C&E Advisory, a consulting firm specialised in working with purpose-led businesses. “Governments are expected to protect citizens, companies to protect their employees. Governments worry about security, companies about well-being. These may be slightly different, but there is a meeting point in middle. Increasingly referred to as ‘one of the world’s largest NGOs,’ a company like Unilever is said to do more to promote hand-washing than international agencies like UNICEF. As citizens and consumers, it doesn’t matter to us who does good, we just want our leaders to raise their game, collaborate and do the best they can. No one has a monopoly on doing good.”

In fact, the crisis is proving that doing good is both profitable and resilience-building. Blackrock just published a report showing that during the tumult, sustainable businesses are out-performing market indices. In the first quarter of 2020, “94 per cent of a globally-representative selection of widely-analysed sustainable indices outperformed their parent benchmarks.” The Dow Jones Industrial Average shed some 34% of its value as the pandemic spread, but “Morningstar reported that 51 out of 57 of their sustainable indices outperformed their broad market counterparts.”

When Seattle erupted on the front pages as the first city in the US to be hit by Covid-19, a former Washington State governor, Christine Gregoire, was already ready. She is the CEO of Challenge Seattle, a coalition founded to dump old divides. It pulls together leaders from 19 of the region’s biggest organisations (including Amazon, Costco, Microsoft, Nordstrom and Starbucks) in enlightened self-interest to address some of their city’s key problems: education, housing and transportation. When Covid-19 hit, they were already meeting. “These big companies began acting in concert,” Gregoire commented, “I’ve had a career in public service, and I’ve never seen anything like this.” She probably had something to do with it, hosting daily calls bringing public and private sector, for-profit and not-for-profit organisations together with health experts, with up to 200 people on any given conversation. She is now No.1 on Fortune’s Covid-19 Heroes list.  It was this sharing of information, ideas and solutions that allowed Seattle to have “the world’s first operational trial site for a COVID-19 vaccine candidate.”

WHAT GREAT PARTNERSHIPS DO: Leaders have enough humility to let go of the lone hero myths. They proactively work together, welcome multiple perspectives and bring different actors into decision-making. Their partnerships collect the ‘Cs’ of creative problem-solving: collective action, collaboration, connection, co-opetition, co-development, co-designing, and cognitive diversity.

Embracing the New

The ability to jump headlong into the new reality birthed by a virus, is not given to everyone. There are many companies stickily attached to legacy systems, mindsets and business models. So it’s always exciting to see some leap joyously into the future. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, is a prime example. He was the first to rather spectacularly declare that employees could now work from home ‘forever.’

He is a frontrunner in other ways too. He has given $1 billion of his personal net worth to fight Covid-19, one of the largest private gifts to date. The donation will, after the crisis, move to support women’s health, education and universal basic income (UBI). “Why UBI and girl’s health and education? I believe they represent the best long-term solutions to the existential problems facing the world. UBI is a great idea needing experimentation,” he wrote in a tweet. He is leaning into the future at every step and in every detail, including the transparency he promises in tracking the spending of his gift on a public Google sheet. Also note that he plans to spend a few months living in Africa. He knows it’s the continent of the future where half the world’s population will live by 2050 and wants to learn all about it. This is what embracing the future looks like.

WHAT FUTURE-HUGGERS DO: Embrace those growth mindsets. Let go of the old, the obsolete and the-way-it-was-always done stuff. Welcome friends and foes to the fog, invite them to sit at virtual tables listening to the future with curiosity and delight. Know that individualism is just another word for ingrate. Honour your parents’ parents, channel your children’s children.


Here’s the Covid coda. Consciously or not, we know this pandemic punch is just a dress rehearsal for the climate hit that’s coming. That’s why the smartest companies are already moving beyond these lessons to connect the covid-climate crisis dots. In the largest ever company-led climate advocacy effort, backed by the UN, 155 multinationals from 34 sectors and 33 countries have committed to using the recovery from this pandemic to help accelerate the move towards a zero carbon economy. They are calling on governments to match their ambition. Because, says Dr. Andrew Steer, President and CEO of World Resources Institute and SBTi Board Member, “It is imperative that we not only restart the world economy — but also reset it.”

Imagine a future where companies, governments and civil society come together to cool us collectively down from the fires of inequality, populism and a warming climate. That future’s here, and it’s now. Or we’re history.

Source: Forbes Business

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