Turning Toward the Light

You have heard it said many times: “If nonprofit organizations were run more like businesses, they’d be more effective.”  As someone who has spent his career in nonprofit management, I used to cringe when I heard those words.  In my most honest moments, however, I began to realize the truth behind that statement.  In fact, nonprofit groups could all stand to be more disciplined and results-oriented in their approaches. much like successful businesses.

At the same time, however, business leaders are discovering that they can learn from nonprofit organizations.  In particular, they are beginning to understand that people are motivated, often more powerfully, by a sense of mission or purpose that goes far beyond making money.  These enlightened business leaders are referred to as “conscious capitalists.”  In addition to embracing a higher purpose for their companies, these executives work hard to balance stakeholder interests, create a “conscious culture,” and practice a style of leadership that puts the needs of others above their own.

I was delighted to learn recently that these “conscious capitalism” principles are becoming embedded in such successful and diverse corporations as CarMax, Whole Foods, Disney, Amazon, Nordstrom, Southwest and other high-performing companies. There is growing evidence that blending our highest ideals with pragmatic business practices can produce gains for the company’s shareholders, its employees and customers, and the world at large.

In her book, SuperCorp, Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, writes that “for years, lip service has been paid by many corporate leaders to achieving high performance and being a good corporate citizen.”  She discovered in her research, however, that “business performance and societal contributions are, in fact, intimately connected.”  The highest performing companies tend to use their unique strengths to provide new solutions to educational, social and health challenges.  And while Kanter learned that these initiatives are often undertaken without a direct profit motive, they help to sustain a high performing culture that, ironically, results in higher profits.

By way of example, Kanter cites IBM’s frequent responses to earthquakes or other natural disasters.  The blue chip company has rushed people and goods to affected areas, even when their customer bases or supply chains weren’t affected, simply because they had the technological wherewithal to make a difference.  In the process, the company has realized greater employee engagement, increased company pride, enhanced brand recognition and new innovations.

At their best, some of our largest employers in Greater Harford, including Travelers, The Hartford, Cigna, Aetna, United HealthCare and Pratt & Whitney, have long demonstrated a commitment to more than just maximizing profits.  These companies encourage and support their employees who wish to become better community leaders, serve on nonprofit boards and engage in other civic ventures.  They understand that their employees, particularly millennials, have a growing sense of responsibility to the world around them and “consciously” create opportunities that meet both their employee engagement and civic responsibility goals.

ConnectiCare has just launched an effort that goes beyond its employees.  Recognizing that its members are also interested in serving the community and that community service has been shown to have positive health benefits, the Farmington-based company is piloting an effort this spring with Leadership Greater Hartford to engage its health care customers in an initiative they are calling “Good Deeds.”  During one recent Saturday morning, some of these members joined ConnectiCare employees in a beautification project along a blighted stretch of Capitol Avenue.  Said one member, having just completed sweeping debris from a sidewalk, “it simply feels good to give back.”

I am encouraged by these “mission-based” business practices, but we need to accelerate this trend in Greater Hartford.  As such, Leadership Greater Hartford has recently established a partnership with “Conscious Capitalism.” a national organization that has a budding Connecticut chapter.  Dozens of business leaders are expected to learn more about these principles in our Wake Up! Leadership Breakfast on May 23.  Working with the Connecticut chapter, we’ve designed this forum to expand an understanding of conscious capitalism, start the conversation and shine light on the benefits of this business approach.

In the natural word, plants are always turning to the sun so that they can grow strong and healthy. This spring, we witness once again how magnificent flowers and plants are searching for the light.  Perhaps this will be the season when all organizations, for-profit and nonprofit alike, will seek the light and enjoy the growth that can come from working for a higher purpose.

Ted Carroll is the President and CEO of Leadership Greater Hartford.

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