There’s a reason business leaders earn the big bucks. They rarely get the recognition they deserve when things go well, but the general public will quickly point pitchforks in their direction when things go wrong. In what feels like such a volatile business environment, demanding the rapid resignation of a CEO seems like a increasingly default public response.
However, maybe we should be careful what we wish for. Maybe outgoing CEOs will take their values with them, and we’ll be left with companies that once ‘did good’ but slowly drifted into social insignificance.
As has become clear over the years, great corporate social responsibility (CSR) and social impact requires buy-in from the very top. If the CEO doesn’t prioritize values, an organization is unlikely to ever change society for the better. In this sense, the link between leadership and values is crucial.
But is it problematic?
The thing is, if leaders and values become too deeply entwined, to what extent can organizations ever be value-driven at all? What if organizations are just platforms for leaders to act out their own values, rather than entities that can develop long-lasting values of their own? This represents a very serious (and often overlooked) issue facing conscious companies.
Leaving a legacy
If you ask me, the crux of the problem surrounds CEOs desperately wanting to leave their mark on their organizations. Considering the average CEO tenure at the 500 biggest U.S. companies is under five years, it’s no wonder that leaders are desperate to leave a legacy.
For example, Paul Polman’s reign at the top of Unilever will most likely be associated with the introduction of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP). Whether he set out to do it or not, he has created an enduring legacy that will be remembered for years to come. But what will happen when he stands down?
It is highly likely that his successors will try to craft a legacy of their own. Because Paul Polman is the USLP, any leader that follows him will probably want to be known for something different. The problem is: That could involve taking key resources and attention away from the very things Unilever does that actually make the world better, and society will be worse off as a result.
This is exactly what happened when Marc Bolland took over as CEO of U.K. retail giant Marks & Spencer. The company’s award-winning Plan A social impact initiative was introduced two years prior, but Bolland wanted to focus his efforts on creating something of his own. Howard Schultz’s recent departure from Starbucks poses a similar question. While Starbucks may not be the world’s greatest corporate citizen, you can’t deny the time and effort the company put into pioneering fair trade and responsible coffee. What’s to say that Howard Schultz’s successor wants to be known for something that conflicts with that?
CSR isn’t temporary
Ultimately, this issue represents a key shift in how CSR is viewed. When it was just something that kept the scrutinizing public at bay, CSR was far from being ‘part of the furniture.’ In fact, the phrase ‘budget cuts’ usually induced far more fear in the minds of CSR managers than anybody in the marketing department.
For incumbent leaders, it’s important to identify that this has firmly changed. The bar is continuously being raised, and companies that stand still will soon be under pressure, let alone the companies that actually scale back their social impact work. Unless new leaders want their legacies to be tainted with PR disasters and viral social media condemnation, values-driven programs must be viewed and respected as integral to the day-to-day functioning of the business. It must be something that is only ever improved upon, not diluted.
Making values contagious
However, the approach taken by new CEOs is only half the story. What can outgoing leaders do to ensure that their own personal values continue to survive and thrive in the organization once they’ve gone? While easier said than done, here are three key things to aim for:
1. Less “I,” more “we.” A company’s values can’t center on one person. Impact will always increase when others get involved, so thinking in terms of what your entire organization can do is far more powerful than focusing on the legacy you will personally leave behind.
2. Everybody must be aligned. In an ideal world, everyone in the company should be able to say what the organization stands for. This requires excellent communication and recruitment, but corporate values should be a key pull factor when hiring new staff members.
3. Make values untraceable. If you can trace an organization’s values to a specific person or department, they’re not integrated enough. By creating a blank canvas and attracting the right people, values-driven ideas should pop up from all around the business—making their origin impossible to locate.
Values are complex by definition. They’re hard to change and even harder to embed into an organization. While we’re fortunate that conscious leaders sit at the helm of some of the world’s largest companies, we need to understand the associated risk.
By realizing that social responsibility is no longer a temporary fad or something that can be sacrificed for a more enduring legacy, this risk is effectively mitigated. What’s more, let’s take the conscious step of realizing that a true leadership legacy is not measured by the values you impose on an organization, but the ones that organization still adopts once you’ve gone.