Business and Markets

A New Take on Corporate Leadership

October 17, 2017  • Nancy McGaw

When we think of business leaders, we are usually referring to the denizens of the C Suite, the chiefs of this and that. And, indeed, those chiefs — of technology, operations, people, purpose, and the chief executive herself — have wide-ranging responsibilities for keeping the company on the right, profitable course.

Today, however, the world also needs another kind of business leader. We need leaders of change who work at all levels of the company and in every department. They may not have “chief” in their titles, but they are taking the lead in creating products, services, new business models, and new management practices that deliver value to the business and make the world a better place.

Because of their innovative efforts to work for change that benefits business and society, these leaders have earned a new title: corporate social intrapreneur. Unlike their social entrepreneur counterparts who start new mission-driven enterprises to solve complex social and environmental challenges, these intrapreneurs are working for positive change within big companies.

These leaders of change are unleashing financial value because they are imagining how to act on the profound insight of Peter Drucker, the legendary guru in the practice of management: “Every single social and global issue of our day is a business opportunity in disguise.” These leaders see through the disguises.

They deliver value for their companies and help them build trust and retain their license to operate. They deliver value for society because they open pathways for business to bring its distinctive capabilities to solve some of the most complex social and environmental challenges of our day.

Corporate social intrapreneurs work for positive change within big companies.

At the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program we have worked closely with exceptional corporate social intrapreneurs through our First Movers Fellowship Program for nearly a decade. In our First Movers community there are now 170 intrapreneurs, mostly from Fortune 100 companies like GE, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, and tech powerhouses like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn.

They are business innovators like Bruce Cummings at Colgate, Alicia Ledlie at Walmart, and Kirstin Hill at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Bruce Cummings is a designer and a packaging expert with several patents to his name. At Colgate Palmolive, where he has worked for 21 years, he now has global responsibility for the design and packaging of personal care products. Bruce is committed to ensuring that the company’s packaging, as well as its product, delivers brand value. The increase in ecommerce has added a new challenge, and Bruce now runs the corporate initiative to adapt packaging for this rapidly growing market. When Colgate Palmolive’s customers purchase products online, like Palmolive dishwashing liquid, Softsoap, and Speedstick deodorant, Bruce knows they expect to receive the products at their doorstep safely and intact. His job is to make sure the packaging can withstand the rigors of transport and have minimal environmental impact.

Alicia Ledlie joined Walmart after receiving her MBA. She began as a co-manager of a 90,000 square foot store and has developed new business models for the company during her 13-year tenure. Her passion, however, lies in developing the talent of Walmart associates.  She currently leads a team of 50 learning managers, instructional designers and production developers to create impactful learning opportunities.  Among her responsibilities is oversight of training development for store supervisors and managers, taught in over 150 onsite learning centers called Walmart Academies. To date, over 200,000 employees have graduated from Walmart Academies.  For some Walmart associates, completing this program and receiving their certificates is the first time in their lives that they have donned a cap and gown and walked across a stage.

Kirstin Hill is a senior executive for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. Over the years, in assignments in the U.S., Hong Kong, Tokyo and London, she structured and traded complex financial products like equity derivatives and convertible bonds. Recently she led a 90-person team to develop and deliver personal retirement products and services. A top priority for Kirstin is ensuring that these offerings meet the needs of women. Although women control enormous wealth in the U.S., Kirstin knows that financial advisors often overlook the unique priorities, earning power, career paths and lifespans of their female clients. She is using her expertise and her passion to change that reality.

We want companies to look beyond short term financial self-interest and make decisions that are attentive to society’s needs.

Bruce, Alicia, and Kirstin are all unleashing financial value for their companies while achieving results that deliver value to society as a whole. None of them has “corporate social intrapreneur” in their official titles, nor in their job descriptions. However, the innovative work they are doing is exactly what corporate social intrapreneurship is about. In very different ways, they are turning complex societal challenges into business opportunities.

By highlighting the work that these and other corporate social intrapreneurs are doing and helping them be even bolder and more effective, the Aspen Business & Society Program is creating momentum for an exciting movement that is happening in business today.

This movement emerges from two dynamics. First, it responds to public expectations for business. As consumers, employees, community members and shareholders, we want companies to look beyond short term financial self-interest and make decisions and investments that are attentive to society’s needs. Companies that do so are the ones where we want to work and whose products and services we want to buy. Second, it taps into the aspirations of employees — from baby boomers to millennials — to work with purpose. Research conducted by LinkedIn and Imperative.com shows that 37 percent of LinkedIn members globally (40 percent in the US) are purpose-oriented. That means they prioritize work that matters to them, their company and the world over money and status. Even though desire for meaning in work is high, research conducted by the Gallup Organization tells us that employee engagement is low — only a third of workers are actively engaged in their work. Corporate social intrapreneurs are acting on their own sense of purpose. They are doing what matters to them while helping their companies redefine their success metrics.

And the good news is that a business person in any role or at any level in a company can take on the corporate social intrapreneur mantle. Yes, it is very hard work and takes vision, determination, and expertise, but the path is open to all. The rise of the corporate social intrapreneur demonstrates that you don’t need to work in a non-profit or a social enterprise to make a difference in the world nor do you need to have “chief” in your title to be a leader.  You can choose to take the lead in your company, just as Bruce, Alicia, and Kirstin are doing, and deliver results that make us all better off.

Nancy McGaw is the founder and director of the First Movers Fellowship Program, an innovation lab launched in 2009 by the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program. This selective Fellowship is designed for exceptional business innovators (corporate social intrapreneurs) who are creating products, services, business models and management practices that deliver financial value for their companies and make the world a better place. Learn more about Nancy on LinkedIn

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