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Ross Net Impact: The Intersection of Business, Social Impact, and Sustainability

10/16/2012 --

Industry innovators and high-impact leaders emphasize the importance of leveraging business to make a positive difference.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — More than ever, businesses are placing importance on sustainable, ethical, and value-driven practices. But moving these ideals from mission statements and marketing materials to real-world application takes vision and commitment.

Such was the focus of the 2012 Ross Net Impact Thought Leadership Summit (RNI), which took place Oct. 11-12 and convened business leaders, educators, and innovators to explore the relationship between the environment, society, business, and ethics in professional contexts.

The recurring theme: In business, positive impact cannot be an afterthought or accessory. Defining values must grow from within an organization's core and exist in balance with its economic goals.

Keynote speaker Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev argued that this balance begins with individual leaders. "As a business leader, you are sometimes required to manage hundreds or thousands of people," said Vasudev. "But you must be able to manage your own mind before you manage other people's minds."

An Indian yogi and mystic, Vasudev is a globally renowned humanitarian and thought leader who regularly speaks at such prominent events as the World Economic Forum and has been interviewed by BBC, CNBC, CNN, and Bloomberg Businessweek, among others. He has co-written more than 50 books and is the founder of the Isha Foundation, an international nonprofit dedicated to cultivating human potential.

Vasudev argued that managing one's own mind — or cultivating self-awareness and inner balance — serves as the ultimate foundation for a successful business. "Without balance, just doing one thing will freak you out. You must make some investment in your inner well-being. Otherwise, your management practices will be an accident."

And human well-being, he said, is not a tangential aspiration — it's the ultimate end goal of all business. "No matter what business you're in, you're in the business of human well-being. If your business is against well-being, people will fight you. Therefore, the focus of business needs to evolve from quarterly balance sheets to making a larger impact."

Vasudev also pointed to history as a driving force behind the necessity for sustainable business. Over time, we've shifted from militant aristocracy to a model of democratic leadership. But he predicts that economic leadership will dominate within the next 20 years. "Fifty years ago, it would be unthinkable that a business person would stand for election. Now people are saying, 'He's done business before; let's elect him.'"

This new model of economic leadership, however, comes with incredible power and responsibility. Vasudev said business leaders now have the opportunity to significantly impact millions — but whether that impact is positive or negative largely depends upon motives.

"It's not about how much money you can grab, but how much you can do," he said. "Businesses must take a larger responsibility by focusing on how they can touch everyone. Transactions are only sustainable if they benefit both parties."

The idea of personal dedication to value-centric leadership was echoed by panelist Elizabeth Garlow, director of strategic initiatives at Michigan Corps. "We have professionalized this notion of social entrepreneurship. I challenge that. It should be more about value alignment and mindset. If your whole body, soul, mind, and heart are not embedded in your business ideals, they will be nothing more than an afterthought."

David Tulasukas, director of sustainability for General Motors Corp., agreed that positive change must start from within. "The new imperative is for companies to change their business practices in order to become sustainable. It has to start from within and remain a core component of the mission and strategy. Becoming successful and then giving back — afterward — isn't going to create lasting change."

But to affect real change, the entire organization must be vested in the mission, Tulasukas said. "It's not always one way or the other. When it comes to goal setting, it's important that those who are accountable for carrying out actions are some of the key drivers and developers."

But how do you get everyone in an organization on board and build a rock-solid culture geared toward positive change? Always look at the big picture and create a sense of motivation and drive, said Jacob Stevens Corvidae, green programs manager at Detroit's WARM Training Center. He encouraged participants to remember French aristocrat and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's famous quote about human motivation: "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood, and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."

— Holly Higgins



For more information, contact:
Holly Higgins, 734-647-4626, hollyfh@umich.edu