I spent a few days with the world’s best and brightest thought leaders. Here’s what was on their minds …

April 30, 2018

“The purpose of life is to contribute in some way to making things better.” ― Robert F. Kennedy

For a person who connects business with learning every day, I’m a lucky guy. I get to go to business and leadership conferences around the world and learn from outstanding thinkers, leaders and artists at the top of their fields. From these people, it doesn’t take long to get a sense of where the ships of business are sailing.

Most recently I attended the YPO Edge conference in Singapore, which drew 2,800 CEOs from 93 countries, and the always dazzling TED Conference in Vancouver. At both, the buzz was all about impact – the growing trend of businesses seeking purpose through a greater engagement in the world around them.

A document referenced by many was BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s annual letter to CEOs, issued just prior to these conferences.

Fink wrote: “We see many governments failing to prepare for the future, on issues ranging from retirement and infrastructure to automation and worker retraining. As a result, society increasingly is turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges. Indeed, the public expectations of your company have never been greater. Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate. Without a sense of purpose, no company, either public or private, can achieve its full potential.”

I was thrilled to read those words because, one, BlackRock is such a powerhouse in the financial world that many will follow its lead, and, two, because I’ve always believed that businesses – through their scale, influence, resources and expertise – are uniquely positioned to make a huge difference at all levels of society – locally, nationally and globally. Businesses can pick up where governments seem no longer effective.

So what is “impact”

When Fink talks about impact, he means understanding “the societal impact of your business … what role do we play in the community? How are we managing our impact on the environment? … Are we providing the retraining and opportunities that our employees and our business will need to adjust to an increasingly automated world? Are we using behavioral finance and other tools to prepare workers for retirement?”

But impact has many forms. Just a few weeks ago, Marc Benioff, the powerful CEO of Salesforce, told “60 Minutes” he hadn’t thought a pay gap existed at Salesforce, which prides itself on being progressive. But lo and behold, when the company investigated, 10 percent of the female workforce was underpaid. That gap is now being closed, which speaks volumes about the leadership of Benioff and the culture at Salesforce. I had the chance to talk to Marc personally about this subject recently and we agreed that these are levers that CEOs should be pulling immediately. Companies are increasingly aware of the critical need to become more diverse and inclusive, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because the new world taking shape demands it.

And who’s behind the move toward impact?

The millennial generation is a big reason for this. As survey after survey has demonstrated, millennials – who will comprise 75 percent of the workforce by 2025 – want to buy from and work for companies that are diverse, inclusive and involved. Companies that don’t measure up in those departments simply won’t thrive in the long run. They won’t be able to hire top level talent.

As a generation, millennials take more than their share of ribbing, but they have a lot to be proud of, most especially their insistence that opportunity should be available to everybody. It’s because of them, I suspect, that we’re seeing the concept of purpose-driven businesses approaching critical mass.

Enlightened leadership, as I’ve noted, also has much to do with it. There are many things that need fixing in our world, but the leaders I admire the most are treating them as challenges to be solved rather than signs of impending doom.

It’s an exciting time to be in a forward-looking business.

Onward and upward.