Business and Markets

What I Learned over 4 Days with 100 Corporate Change-Makers

October 28, 2019  • Eli Malinsky

It is not only by the questions we have answered that progress may be measured, but also by those we are still asking. – Freda Adler

What does it mean to lead change in a changing world?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself for the last year or so. Fortunately for me, it’s a question I was able to impose on 100 corporate change-makers during the Aspen Institute First Movers Summit in California earlier this month. The Summit is our biennial gathering of First Mover Fellowscorporate social intrapreneurs who are generating business value for their companies and social value for the world.

A Summit focused on “change” may feel a bit obvious and even passé. But here’s the thing: change really is accelerating. A lot has happened in the world of business and society since our Fellows last convened in 2017. Consider: CEOs have stepped out on issues ranging from immigration to gun control. Employees have stepped out on issues ranging from defense contracts to climate change. Business leaders are demanding new models of capitalism and the Business Roundtable has demoted the role of the shareholders. And let’s not forget breakneck technological change and a simmering #metoo movement.

There is certainly more to come.

Over the four days we spent together, Summit participants dove deeply into our theme of leading through change, examining macro trends and picking up practical skills. Like with most Aspen convenings, I walked away with some clear learnings. And – like with most Aspen convenings – I walked away with fresh questions.

Three things I learned about leading change amidst disruption

 Anxiety can be a good thing

If there’s a universal reaction to rapid change, it’s anxiety. To be surrounded by disruption is to occupy a permanent state of unease. But Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO, helpfully reframed my concerns during a lunchtime conversation. He proposed that anxiety is an expression of discomfort with the status quo that, appropriately harnessed, can motivate us to discover fresh insights. As change agents, we need to interrogate the sources of our anxiety and seek within them the underlying opportunities for meaningful change.

We must attend to unintended consequences

We are surrounded by the unintended consequences of technology. But just because we can’t predict all possible outcomes doesn’t mean that those who design and sell new technologies get a pass. As LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner explained during our event kickoff, it is the responsibility of tech creators to ask themselves hard questions about unexpected outcomes during the development process – and to take corrective action when things don’t go as planned. The time of moving fast and breaking things is long gone. Summit attendees were instead served by an updated call to move purposefully and fix things.

Clarity is rewarded but certainty is punished

It’s been well established that we live in a VUCA world – or, a “scramble” in the parlance of Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow with the Institute for the Future. Johansen’s turn of phrase – that clarity is rewarded but certainty is punished – provides a useful guide for contemporary leadership. Certainty during a scramble is a convenient and dangerous illusion. Clarity, on the other hand, is intimately tied with our personal and organizational purpose and can serve as a grounding force. Good leaders wield their sense of purpose like a compass, balancing clarity on destination with flexibility in route.

During the Aspen Institute’s First Movers Summit at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, Calif. on Saturday October 5, 2019. Photo By David Royal

In that spirit, I’m leaning into uncertainty with 3 questions:

Is the window of opportunity narrower than we think?

There’s never been a better time to work at the intersection of business and social impact. Changing consumer, employee and shareholder expectations are producing favorable conditions for meaningful change throughout the corporate sector. But given the volatility swirling around us, I wonder if we’re counting too strongly on this favorable backdrop. What happens if a recession hits? What might happen as a result of the Brexit negotiations, the next US presidential election, and ongoing trade wars? Boom times usually go bust, and we may be just a headline or two away from a return to shareholder primacy. I’m left asking if we are moving quickly enough through this window of opportunity and whether we’re making the types of changes that will endure the next swing of the pendulum.

Are we capable of leading true systems change?

The challenges we face – the widening gap between rich and poor, the threat of environmental catastrophe and the growing social divisions within our countries – cannot be solved without structural change. This means that we’ll need leaders who have a capacity to work across sectors and a willingness to amend the very systems that are responsible for their successes. I am heartened by several of our Fellows who are working on large-scale, coordinated efforts including a major new data privacy initiative and development of global Principles for Responsible Banking. And I am asking myself how we can help First Mover Fellows to further develop their capacity to lead systemic change.

How do we make the personal costs of this work more bearable?

I am always – always – amazed by our Fellows. Their smarts and their passion lead to extraordinary outcomes. But it is wearisome work. Despite the broad sense that there’s a growing alignment between business and society, the day-to-day experience for these corporate social intrapreneurs is challenging at best and crushing at worst. This is one of the reasons why the core pillars of First Movers Fellowship include reflection and community. We’ve learned that effective change-makers step back to step forward, take time to themselves, and draw on the strength, wisdom and support of an aligned network of peers. Following our time together, I’m left wondering how else we might address the well-being of our Fellows while strengthening their personal resiliency.

I am grateful to all our Summit attendees for such a stimulating event. As we wrestle through these challenging times, I take comfort in the dedication and optimism of these change-makers – and I am grateful for the opportunity to work alongside them as we take on the new questions of our day.


Eli Malinsky is director of the Aspen Institute First Movers Fellowship, the leading global network and professional development program for corporate social intrapreneurs. First Movers are accomplished innovators inside companies who are creating new products, services and management practices that increase business value and make the world a better place.