Earlier this week, 30 chief executive officers of Canada’s largest corporations urged every leader in the country to immediately shift focus to the singular objective of slowing the pace of transmission of the coronavirus. By sharing four key actions, their companies have committed to and encouraging other organisations to do the same, they’ve reinforced the “new normal” for businesses today: helping to solve social problems.
Their action has reinforced a significant shift that was already underway. Corporate social responsibility has already become recognised for what it is: an exercise in feel good optics rather than a meaningful commitment to change that moves the needle on important issues. Solving social problems such as the current transmission of the coronavirus means taking action and that’s why the leadership shown by these Canadian CEOs is so important.
Beyond the important advice offered by Canada’s business leaders today, here’s how corporations can take action to help eradicate the transmission of the coronavirus and establish a more effective approach to social change in the future.
Empower employees. This means shifting from ineffectual (and, for the time being, inappropriate) volunteer activities in the community to developing new ideas to solve social problems that are based on their personal experiences and leverage their professional skills. Today, this could mean moving quickly to establish a virtual task force of employees who can discuss their experiences of working remotely and develop new approaches that may be more effective. This approach will ensure that employees feel that their input is valued and that they are contributing to solving an important problem in a meaningful way.
Engage experts. When businesses commit to solving a social problem, they’re taking responsibility for people’s lives. This is serious business and most corporations don’t have the internal knowledge to determine how to best allocate resources to make change in an effective and responsible way. For some businesses, slowing the pace of transmission of the coronavirus involves mandating employees to work remotely for a period of time. For others in industries such as agriculture and manufacturing this isn’t as easy and they will need expert advice. The same thing goes for corporations who commit to solving other problems such as hunger or homelessness.
Encourage innovation. Necessity really is the mother of invention and that’s the situation that corporations have found themselves in today. This is true of the coronavirus and of other social change imperatives that may be high priorities of employees, investors, customers and regulators. In essence, innovation involves developing a better approach to solving a problem that’s faster and more cost effective than previous efforts. This is where diversity can really make a difference. Businesses should use the situation today to identify and engage a group of internal and external people who bring a diversity of age, culture, gender and identity to develop, and help implement, new ideas.
Entrench commitment. Beyond these important actions, businesses should not back away from their responsibility to employees, business partners, community stakeholders and charitable organisations. Success in business, and in life, depends on coping with the inevitable short-term setbacks and committing to playing the long game. Corporations that cave now will suffer later because the people that really matter won’t trust them and there’s nothing harder than re-building trust.
It’s important for every business leader to read the open letter from Canadian CEOs and to take the action as they’ve suggested. This letter from leaders such as Michael McCain from Maple Leaf Food, Brian Porter from Scotiabank, and Don Lindsay from Teck Resources establishes the opportunity, and the imperative, for business to help solve social problems, starting with the coronavirus. Starting today, social change is the new normal for business.
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Paul Klein is the founder and CEO of Impakt, a B Corp that helps corporations benefit from solving social problems.