“When we say peace, we mean business,” a delegate emphatically stated to a global gathering of business leaders, government officials, and other agents of change at the UN Global Compact’s inaugural Business for Peace leadership platform in 2013. The newly created initiative aims to foster peace in the workplace, the marketplace and in society. Its creation and support by the global community is part of a growing recognition of the importance of peace to business, and vice versa—the core of the very topic that makes The Diplomat in the Corner Office essential reading in a contemporary business environment.
The fact that business, for the most part, is benefiting from peace will not come as a revelation to most, as peace is prosperity. It is the recognition that business can be a powerful driver of peace that remains surprising to many. Over the last fifteen years, the role of business in contributing to peace has become the subject of increased interest, and Tim Fort has been in the academic forefront of this exploration, researching and convincingly arguing that a business presence in peace building—through the idea of gentle (ethical) commerce—solves a long-standing anthropological debate of whether human beings have become more or less peaceful over time. Discussing from perspectives of power and trust, Fort lays out a compelling case for the idea that the role of business in fostering peace is neither ancillary nor niche; instead it is germane to the way in which peace and prosperity have developed from the beginning of trade and into the twenty-first century.
As an investment banker and chairman of the Business for Peace Foundation, an international organization vested in promoting a business mind-set and actions supportive to building peace, I was more than intrigued by Professor Fort’s advanced thinking on the topic when we first met several years ago. A long career in business had taught me the value of business relationships and how these often can inspire strong bonds of trust and promote peaceful relations between people, irrespective of culture or background, in the most complex of situations. I had also been reflecting on the rapid penetration of the Internet and how its interconnectivity and transparency seemed to be harnessing trust as currency, making us increasingly more ethically connected.
In this changing paradigm, companies should see themselves as independent actors in a global and increasingly transparent and interconnected environment. This broadens the scope and complexity of powers with which a business must deal. Fort argues that a business increasingly must act with a sense of corporate “foreign policy,” proposing that companies can and should anchor themselves in a strategy of fostering peace. Such a strategy begins with attending to one’s core constituents (shareholders, customers, and employees) and then extends to crafting a corporate foreign policy that diplomatically supports peace building.
Fort articulates three different approaches of engagement businesses can use to foster peace: peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peace building, with the last holding the most potential for an enduring reduction of violence and the creation of more just societies. Although some businesses entrepreneurially incorporate peace as a business goal, and many others recognize the instrumental value of peace building to their companies, most businesses still have no conscious intention of encouraging peace.
But, as Fort argues, these engagements will constructively contribute to the goal by their ethical and just business actions. These unconscious peace builders tend to be ignored in practice but may provide the bulk of the culture-building practices of companies that can have an impact on peace. Fort convincingly argues that it is commerce that is gentle (ethical) that has the strongest capacity to this end.
It is nevertheless a fact that society’s perception of business activities has developed negatively during the last decenniums. Many would characterize this perception as colored more by distrust than by trust. Increasingly, business has been profiled as a source of conflict, rather than as a force of good. Society has often viewed business as profiting at its expense, rather than contributing to its benefit. Many look on the current business and economic paradigm as unsustainable for humans as well as for nature; they see a rising economic inequality threatening both the sense of fairness in society as well as undermining the postwar decades of prosperity. They observe economic activities as also being culpable for a degradation of our life-depending ecosystem.
How do we explain that business appears to have the capacity of being a force in building trust and peace, although society seems to focus on the opposite? If possible positive capabilities of business activities are conditioned both by how one goes about doing business, as well as what one is doing, the understanding of what drives this behavior will be of importance. How, then, should thinking about the purpose of business affect its actions?
Different perspectives of the purpose for being in business might lead to quite different implications. Over the last fifty years, maximizing shareholder value has increasingly been the defining agenda for managing a business. Reflecting on why business has become the villain in the story, and why it is often seen as the cause of conflict, makes me wonder if important parts of the reason can be found in such one-sided financial thinking. Might it be that society’s distrust of the greater intentions of business (green-washing, CSR initiatives, and the like) in fact has some truth to it? That financial priorities have led business to profit at the expense of society, and have been conducive to creating conflicts, whether unintended or not? If so, this is short-term thinking. No long-term value can be built if there are not multiple winners.
In business, one can’t measure value creation without numbers. But numbers are not the engines driving value creation. What drives performance is inspirational vision, a higher sense of purpose, principles and values guiding the company in its creation of value for others. Forgetting this while maximizing short-term financial value seems to bring downside risk to the business as well as to its relationship to society. Could it be that the negative societal implications of business actions are as poorly reflected on by business, as its capacity for positive contributions seems to be disregarded by society? Might it be that this narrow financial view of the purpose of business causes business leaders to overfocus on the numbers measuring success rather than on a spectrum of factors that contribute to the long-term success of a business? Widespread linking of incentives to one-dimensional success measures, rather than what catalyzes success, can create numerous risks and unintended consequences.
Many businesses appear to have lost focus of the broader value they might create. The broader solution and value-creating capacity of business might be much bigger than what a financial focus is able to define. The view of customers and employees as solely means to achieving the end of maximizing shareholder wealth is a myopic view of why a business should exist. The perspective of solving human problems by serving customer needs, and having financial return and jobs as the outcome, seems more reflective of the historic rationale for the existence of business and for business as a cornerstone in society.
The implications of the importance of a higher purpose can apply to a businessperson on an individual level as well. Having been an investment banker for many years with maximizing shareholder value as the goal, I know well the daily priority of profits and financial thinking.
As research shows, motivation and organizations thrive if there is inherent meaning to one’s work in addition to financial success. Emphasizing positive value creation to society will add to the inspiration and engagement of the organization and its individuals. A higher purpose nourishes the meaning of work as well as strengthening the position of a business to capture more of that value creation financially. We need both profit and a higher purpose.
An expanded mind-set in business is called for: a mind-set that can integrate the need for meaning in our work with the need for accentuating a higher purpose that will inspire the broader societal value creating capability of business. Such a mind-set could be working for peace instead of being conducive to conflicts. It would be a mind-set of being worthy of the business of one’s customers, employees, community, and society as a whole. It would be a mind-set of what our foundation calls being businessworthy.
Those rooted in traditional financial thinking might regard such a mind-set as nice but naïve and unrealistic. Yet it might be that the surprisingly powerful developments within technology are forcing a deeper rethinking of the traditional approach. The exponentially growing capacity of digital technologies is driving fundamental changes in how people communicate and interact. It is changing and equalizing the balance of power within the business ecosystem. At the same time, it’s making possible new solutions to human and environmental challenges and needs. Potentially, it opens a new paradigm in business thinking that is accelerating the upsides of a businessworthy mind-set.
The interconnectivity and transparency of the net are contributing to a reemphasizing of the forces of ethics. When there is nowhere to hide, the common denominators of how to behave are accentuated. Over time, one can imagine a gyration toward the promotion of key universally held human values and principles for interaction. Though different cultures might frame these values differently, requiring cultural insight to be managed well, core human values such as dignity, respect, and trust will increasingly be promoted as local businesses connect internationally. To successfully sustain value creation, business will see its interests best served by integrating universally held values of fairness and shared prosperity into how one should go about doing business. The need for a “diplomat in the corner office” seems destined to be increasing.
An implication of our increasingly digital world is a democratization of information. This adds to equalizing the balance of power between business as the seller and consumers as the buyers. Much of the traditional value capturing in business has been a desired consequence of managing the information of scarcity. This is becoming more challenging, as information is democratized and abundant. The penetration of digitization in products and services is accelerated by a marginal cost often being close to zero, forcing more and more businesses to reengineer and become software driven. These consequences of digitization are forcing a rethinking of the traditional underlying business assumptions of managing scarcity. It opens up the perspectives and challenges of managing abundance rather than scarcity.
This paves the way for consumers and society to become interdependent participants in core parts of the value-creating activities of a business. As computer power and connectivity expand, the opportunities also increase for people to move from being purely consumers to being collaborators and participants in the value creating process; as they share or shape information, cocreate, coproduce, codistribute, cofund, or coown with a business. This has been observed time and again through the explosive growth of businesses such as Facebook, Kickstarter, Wikipedia, and others. The significance of this development to traditional business thinking cannot be overstated, as smart connected products increasingly are put on line, contributing to building what over time will evolve as a new global infrastructure. New interdependent business ecosystems are being created in an increasingly interconnected global commons. These ecosystems are defined by their crowds and communities, that is, by society. Their needs and values will increasingly redefine markets, as well as inspiring innovations for fulfilling unmet needs, thus creating new markets.
The implications of these developments are crucial for business thinking and acting. They should promote a broadened and longer-term thinking in business about value creation that is sustainable socially and environmentally as well as economically. Business thinking will increasingly have to reflect what can unify and inspire its ecosystem, promoting a stronger union between business interests and the interests of society. The implications should inspire consciousness about the long-term financial viability of a higher purpose of business, influencing the how and the what of business activities. Business must become conscious of its social capital, as well as its financial capital.
As the world is becoming increasingly more interconnected, its complexity and interdependence will increase even more. This accentuates the need to seek positive-sum solutions to our problems and challenges as opposed to traditional zero-sum solutions, if society is to be peaceful and prosper. Business’s mind-set and capability of seeking to create win-win solutions should be a natural and key contributor and mechanism to this.
The Business for Peace Foundation was established with the mission of inspiring the higher purpose of business. The foundation works to promote a mind-set of being businessworthy, seeking to reflect key thinking for sustaining successful value creation in the twenty-first century. Being businessworthy is defined as ethically and responsibly applying your business energy, with the aim of creating economic value that also creates value for society. Such a mind-set of action aims to promote a better union between business and society and contributes to building trust, prosperity, and peace.
The Foundation searches the world, through its global partners the International Chamber of Commerce, the UN Development Program, and the UN Global Compact, to find the best individual role models for this way of business thinking and acting. An independent Award Committee of Nobel Laureates in Economics and Peace selects the winners, who are named Business for Peace Honourees. The Award is given in the City Hall of Oslo, the venue of the Nobel Peace Prize, and has the ambition to be become generally regarded as the highest recognition a businessperson can achieve.
The discussions on strategy, and the policy recommendations expressed by Tim Fort in The Diplomat in the Corner Office, are an inspiration to the thought leadership needed to harness the potential of business to advance a better and more peaceful world.
Per L. Saxegaard
Founder and Chairman, Business For Peace Foundation
Oslo, January 2015