How to make a profit while making a difference

How do you solve society’s most vexing environmental and social issues while becoming more profitable at the same time? Collaboration. Sound too hard? Shift your frame of reference in order to view communities as partners, not just resources. Shift your frame of reference and treat employees and customers as multifaceted humans, not just as worker bees and consumers.

Sound familiar? In April, American Family Insurance gave a presentation on its collaboration economy experience at our Sustainable Business Network meeting. At the July 23 meeting, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi will give us another perspective on the same theme. Nexus Global Advisors CEO Eric Lowitt’s recent book The Collaboration Economy shows how this partnership between the public, private, and civil sectors — the Golden Triangle — can effect the type of change that you want and help you become more profitable at the same time.

Sustain Dane contributing writer Andrea Slinde had the opportunity to interview Lowitt in advance of his upcoming presentation at the Leadership for Global Change Summit in Madison on June 17. While it’s difficult to choose, here are my top four takeaways from their discussion:

1. Companies can solve environmental and social issues as a means to accelerate growth and make a profit.

Lowitt works to inspire transformational change. He says, “We help companies find their purpose — their reason for existing — and then help these companies change who they are, how they operate, and how they partner with stakeholders. So, for example, a well-known company recently realized that, ‘If we can’t get access to water, we won’t have products, we won’t have revenue, and ultimately we won’t have a company unless we change.’ So the only way we can get access to water in perpetuity is by realizing that communities own water. So we have to change how we view communities — from looking at communities as a source of materials to looking at communities as partners. We also have to change how we look at rivals — from rivals against whom we compete for water, or energy, or food, or raw materials, and instead look at rivals as, ‘You have the same problems that we do, so if we were to work together, perhaps we could solve a big issue like water scarcity, so that we both have plenty of water with which to work.’ That’s transformational change.”

2. Even though The Collaboration Economy focuses on private sector case studies, the public and civil sectors are integral to the solution too. Public sector — seek authenticity. Civil sector — you have more power than you give yourself credit for, so act on it.

“The message for government officials is seek to collaborate, seek authenticity. Don’t just try to get a [business CEO] on stage with you for some campaign rally. Earn that person’s presence by working with them behind the scenes and invite them into your regulatory conversation. Get the lobbyists outside, go directly to the CEOs of companies in your constituency, and say, ‘What are the biggest challenges that you see and how can we work together?’ That’s the public sector message.

“The civil sector message is even simpler. Two-thirds of our economy is based on consumer spending as individuals. We have more ability now than ever before to use our wallet for impact. Because we also use our fingers for impact. We can type messages on Twitter and Instagram and 16 other places and say, ‘You know, I’m never doing business with company X again’ or ‘I’m going to continue to buy from Zappos because their customer service is amazing! For you and me, my message for the book is, you can have an impact. You have more power than you give yourself credit for; have confidence to believe in your faith and have confidence to act on it.”



3. Engage your employees in sustainability by encouraging your people to think about your company in the context of the different roles they’re playing during their day.

“They’re employees,” says Lowitt, “but they’re also people who are talking to their friends and their spouses, and planning vacations. They’re on Amazon. Employees are representative slices of civil society. Every role they play can have a positive or adverse impact on your business’s performance. It’s engaging employees as people and talking about things like health and how to keep not only employees healthy, but their families healthy too. If [companies] can have an impact on people so they’re not dreading getting out of bed in the morning to go to work, but instead are going and looking forward to partnering with a company that has a social impact, everybody wins.”

4. Yes, even small companies can make an impact by focusing on your little quarter of the world and sharing what you are doing, and why you are doing it.

“This is going to sound corny, but absolute size doesn’t matter nearly as much as absolute intent. Our smallest companies, of which Nexus Global Advisors is one, can start to tap into sustainable business practices right now by figuring out their purpose. Why are you in business, beyond to make money? What social or environmental cause are you trying to resolve?

“Then don’t be afraid to publicize what you are doing and, more importantly, what your purpose is. Let social media help you amplify your impact. Make the world be the size that you need it to be in order to give you confidence. Realize that you don’t have to affect how the world spins on your own. Focus on your little quarter of the world. Focus on your local community in which you operate — the families that you serve by employing them.”

To read Slinde’s complete interview with Lowitt, click here.

To learn more from Eric Lowitt (among other leadership experts) in person, register for the Leadership for a Better World Global Summit, which will be held June 17-18 in Madison. Members of Sustain Dane’s Sustainable Business Network are eligible for a special group rate discount. For registration information, click here.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.