Does Higher Ground Go Suitably High Enough?

By Hal Hamilton

When I open LinkedIn, I always read posts by Alison Taylor. She’s brilliant, quirky, and an excellent writer. Reading her book, Higher Ground, met my expectations. And it left me wanting more (which I suppose is the sign of a truly good book).

This is not the sort of review that will save you from needing to read the book, but my highlights might entice you to read it, which you should. I will end with suggestions for additional thinking. The backdrop to the book and my suggestions is simple: our world is full of challenges, businesses sit in the middle of many of those challenges, and it’s hard for leaders in those businesses to figure out what to do.

Early on, Taylor reminds us that if we were to name almost any social problem, businesses are blamed for causing it or asked to step in and solve it. Many of us are hopeful that the power of business can help overcome the limitations of government, but Taylor cautions: “Saying that business must intervene, simply because we’re desperate, offers no coherent argument for how business should try to solve social problems, or how far it should go.”

Taylor cites business surveys to back up her own perception that most business leaders now want to act on climate and other issues. And there is no shortage of consultants and activist voices with urgent suggestions about what businesses should do. But, from the point of view of businesses executives, “how do you decide whom to listen to?”

Taylor writes that companies should start by understanding their own negative impacts on human beings, and then choose from one to three issues to focus on. This perspective comes from her personal history with issues of corruption and human rights, which she sees as table stakes for corporate responsibility.

She also urges business leaders to be humble about what they can do, and explicit about what they’re less likely to succeed at. “Admitting to imperfection can be a powerful way to build trust.” She quotes one chief sustainability officer saying, “people don’t expect perfect companies, but they do expect transparent companies.”

Her views of transparency and disclosure are nuanced, however. In one of the more intriguing parts of the book, Taylor explores the downsides of transparency: the ubiquitous availability of information has curbed hidden agendas, but the flip side is that business leaders frequently avoid tough decisions because they fear public criticism. This fear fuels a vicious cycle: don’t act when there’s a risk to your reputation. What’s needed is the opposite: the courage to act, and safe spaces to try out different ideas. Without such safe space, hiding shortcomings can become a habit. Disclosure can become an exercise in public relations rather than a process of identifying problems. “Transparency can become a substitute for action,” despite the fact that effective action requires that we admit the shortcomings of what we’re already doing. Innovation needs learning from what fails, but if we’re afraid to admit our own failures, we’re afraid to try out new things.

Taylor quotes David Wallace-Wells in the New York Times asserting that “The era of climate denial has been replaced with one plagued by climate promises that no one seems prepared to keep.” In many companies, officers are not allowed to publicly admit that 2030 climate targets won’t be met. What’s the gap? Who is making the biggest progress and why are we falling behind? Without such honest humility, we will never achieve what we all want to achieve.

Taylor’s narrative then steps into more encouraging territory, the power of an ethical, integrated organizational culture. She urges leadership to become less about making decisions and more about creating conditions for good decisions, taking advantage of evolving work forces, diversity, values, and participation.

Taylor concludes her book with a discussion of organizational purpose and “the feedback loop between internal culture and external impact,” while again cautioning that “purpose isn’t about projecting perfection.”

In a brilliantly pragmatic paragraph, she summarizes her call for humility and focus: “While toxic, predatory business models exist, most companies generate both benefits (at minimum, employment and meeting customer needs) and negative impacts (at minimum, waste, pollution, and carbon emissions). This isn’t going to change anytime soon. Rather than seeking to put a positive spin on what you’re up to in an effort to deflect reputational risk, you can head for higher ground by being focused and honest about what your business can actually achieve.”

Alison Taylor’s Higher Ground is modest and straightforward: modest in its framework of focus and honesty, and straightforward about the incredibly complex terrain that business leaders must navigate.

When I finished the book and put it down, I was left with four areas for further reflection: 1) take advantage of diversity when making decisions; 2) think more deeply about a culture of creativity; 3) consider not only impacts but also dependencies; and 4) select projects that have a business driver, not just philanthropy.

Take Advantage of Diversity When Making Decisions

I wish all business leaders would absorb Taylor’s wisdom about corporate culture and decision-making. This wisdom is much needed. For example, I once heard a C-suite executive describe strategy this way: “we make strategy at the top, and the job of everyone else is to execute.” Taylor makes a good case for inclusion, but I think her case could be strengthened by assessing business decisions that take advantage of multiple points of view. Let’s take the concept of resilience, for example. For a procurement officer, resilience means that when crops fail in one region, you can still find your ingredients to buy somewhere else. For a farmer, resilience describes good crop yields when the weather is volatile and too hot, and the steps toward resilience include better soil health and moisture retention. Should farmers be supported improve farming practices, and to use land differently when cash crops become unsuitable? Should procurement officers be bonused for de-commodifying ingredients and investing in key regions? Asking those questions leads to thinking in systems and making better long-term decisions. Nobody has the one right answer.

Create a Culture of Creativity

Taylor is funny when she takes on prescriptions to “bring your whole self to work,” observing that a lot of jobs are just jobs. Fair enough. A lot of time we just need to get stuff done. But that doesn’t mean that getting stuff done is the only thing that needs to happen. I’ll tell a little story with a punchline. Dolf van der Brink, CEO of Heineken, is a big believer in the importance of purpose, and he’s discovered that a shared corporate purpose isn’t acted upon until it aligns with personal purpose. When Dolf was head of the Mexican business, he led his senior managers through a process of defining purpose, and the process flopped until he had them first shape a life purpose for themselves, out of which shared purpose emerged. One brand team famously ran with that purpose and created a powerful media campaign about violence against women. It worked. Cultivation of purpose unleashed latent team desires to be creative and help their society. They also sold more beer. When Dolf tells this story, he frequently reminds people that while instilling shared purpose is part of his job, he won’t keep that job unless he also grows his numbers.  (This is our collective macro-economic trap.)

Notice not only Impacts but also Dependencies when Choosing Focus

My third thought, as I put down Higher Ground, is also about how businesses decide what to do. Taylor urges us to think about corporations as open systems, and I’d expand her framework to be more explicit about the systems within which each business is nested: not just markets, but also cultures, political systems, and nature. If we sketch our system maps to include not only impacts but also dependencies on these larger systems, our choices of issue focus will be more business relevant. Businesses have all sorts of impact on larger systems, and they are also dependent on physical infrastructure, education of employees, the ability of suppliers all the way upstream to reinvest in their operations, renewable and non-renewable resources, and sinks for pollution.

For the food and agriculture system, the domain in which I work, dependencies are easy to identify. The recent stampede of interest in regenerative agriculture comes from the need of food companies to have a sufficient supply of ingredients in the future, and this supply of ingredients has many dependencies that companies can augment, from soil health to rural infrastructure.

Select Projects That Have a Business Driver, Not Just Philanthropy.

I’ll use two examples to illustrate this suggestion about the selection of interventions: women’s empowerment and biodiversity. Both seem, at first glance, to be external to the core business of almost every company, and therefore, if most businesses pay attention to either issue at all, they might make a few grants to nonprofits. And grants are usually ephemeral: here today and gone tomorrow, without clear metrics about outcomes or business relevance.

However, both women’s empowerment and biodiversity can have huge business impacts. One of our corporate partners (of the Sustainable Food Lab, where I work) has a focus on women’s empowerment, beginning in India and expanding to other parts of the world. Positive outcomes for the business—more capable and productive women farmers, with strong local networks of peer support—have spawned local and global enthusiasm and willingness to increase investments. In this example, supporting women to be leaders on their farms and in their communities has also led to more and better potatoes.

Biodiversity in agriculture regions, like women’s empowerment, is usually ancillary to business decisions, outside the productive parts of farms: rivers flow in and out, trees and grasslands are at the edges, birds and butterflies migrate long distances. Some businesses make grants to nonprofits that conserve natural areas, which is great but vulnerable to shifting philanthropic priorities. A few businesses, however, invest in those farmers who produce not only commodities but also water quality, wildlife habitat, fencerow diversity, and other co-products of regenerative farming. We’d all agree that these outcomes are good, but what most people don’t realize is that there are many virtuous feedback loops at play: trees modulate water cycles, habitat increases insect diversity which reduces pest pressures, and the moisture holding capabilities of soil can have a dramatic influence on clean water in rivers. Impacts and dependencies pile on top of one another, and one result is that direct benefits accrue to every player in the place and every player in the value chains dependent on the place.

Again, pay attention to dependencies, not just impacts.

As I conclude with those thoughts, I hear Alison Taylor whispering over my shoulder, cautioning me to not get too rhapsodic. Business commitments can easily cascade beyond what is doable. Potential overshoot and disappointment lurk behind any new suggestion to business leaders. Focus, transparency, and healthy internal culture are foundation stones, regardless of issue selection. Purpose needs tempering with pragmatism.

Thanks, Alison, for the wise words in your wise book. I hope that it keeps reverberating around this space and makes us all smarter. Yet I also think that if companies limit themselves to focusing on three or fewer direct impacts on people as their contributions to public good, we will all go down together. The combination of existential challenges to human society demands higher ground.

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