On January 1st, the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program crossed the 20-year mark. But in lots of ways, last year—even the last decade—was challenging. Some of our program’s core principles and values are being threatened by the discord in politics and markets that reward narrow, short-term measures of success. Yet there are lots of reasons for hope. Just look in some unusual places to find it. Like business itself.
As I search for reasons I looking back over the last two decades of our work and am reminded that one of our first ventures as a program was to create the Business Leaders Dialogue. It was chaired in its inaugural year by then Publisher of the Wall Street Journal and CEO of Dow Jones, Peter Kahn. Peter was an Aspen Institute Trustee and willing to roll the dice on a fledgling Aspen program that had no track record but big dreams. The purpose of the dialogue was to engage business executives in conversation about the role corporations can play to support the commons, in pursuit of both a healthier business environment and to build trust in business. This has been a consistent theme of our work ever since.
I had been a banker at one point in my career, but in 1998 as I launched the Business & Society Program, I felt at home in the non-profit sector. Like many of my peers, I saw the world in terms of problems to be solved. A looming crisis like climate change moved me to action. I knew in my heart that if we could just get business leaders to see the future through the eyes of people like me, that they would begin to turn their considerable capacity to the public good – how could they not?
In our first attempt at dialogue, we were gratified to attract someone of Peter’s stature to the table. He helped us recruit a diverse set of participants, including Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense under Gerald Ford, and Ann McLaughlin Korologos, Secretary of Labor under Reagan and veteran of numerous corporate boards. Mark Moody-Stuart, then CEO of Royal Dutch Shell and his remarkable wife, Judy, accepted our invitation along with Carolyn Woo, then Dean of Notre Dame’s business school. It was a table of almost 20 strange bedfellows and I was nervous.
The centerpiece of the dialogue was a set of scenarios created by Allen Hammond of the World Resources Institute to tease out critical global problems—from climate change and species decline, to populations disrupted by drought or globalization, and a new economic order. The scenarios ended on a note of hope—citing technological advances like devices that helped environmental organizations track and slow down deforestation, but basically, the message was the following: doom, gloom, and no time to waste.
I caught up with Peter during the break, eager for feedback—reassurance really—on the power and impact of the three sophisticated scenarios Allen just presented in a cool power-point format, I might add. But it didn’t take long for him to sum up his reaction.
“Too dark,” Peter muttered.
The curtain fell at intermission and it was clear that Act 2 required an entirely different set and mood. It was one of those moments to adjust quickly or lose your audience altogether.
For non-profit executives like me, the glass is half empty with a leak in the bottom. For the business executives I admire most—and that includes many I have observed over past two decades—the glass is not only half full, each day is ripe with new opportunity.
Business leaders share a bias towards action: acknowledge the problem, clarify the intended business objectives, and then engage business investment and protocols—releasing extraordinary talent and market power—to make things better. The goal isn’t just profits, although profits are a critical objective. What is needed is a “yesable proposition” —the opportunity to build your market position, engage employee and customer loyalty, or to stabilize the supply chain. Opportunity abounds.
Peter was not denying the validity of the scenarios; he was saying the story, as it was told, had no on-ramp for the kind of business opportunities that makes a difference—that allows both the business and society to benefit over the long haul; to truly leverage the license to operate. The tax cuts passed by Congress in December present a rare opportunity to test this connection between private good and public welfare.
The problems we face today are no less complex. Reducing inequality requires business capacity and creativity. The work ahead will require private investment in infrastructure, workforce training and development, and experimentation with how we reward both employees and executives. How are the profits shared?
As this historic tax cut releases cash for investment, the long-term thinkers will—and are—working to develop their employees’ financial health, customer loyalty and public trust.
Our success as a program, if any, can be attributed to our belief in the capacity of leaders to reframe problems, to lean in to what is possible, and to inspire others to drive change. Through carefully crafted dialogue and leadership experiences, we enable business peers to act with courage and conviction. This is what the Aspen Institute is all about.
One of my favorite speeches over the last decade was given by Paul Hawken, co-founder Smith & Hawken, to the 2009 graduates of the University of Portland. Paul is an entrepreneur, environmental activist, and author—who lived through the complicated balancing act of growing a business to deliver on a public promise: engage the license to operate for the public good. Here is one kernel from the commencement address:
“When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”
I leave you with his final line from the speech—shared with the young people who would go on to gain responsibility in business, government, and nonprofits—which has wisdom enough for all of us:
“The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.”
Happy New Year!
This post originally appeared on LinkedIn on December 31, 2017.