When Social Responsibility is really a part of the character of the company — rather than one of the many things a company does that stakeholders expect — it becomes an organic part of the story of who the company is, what it stands for.
Social Responsibility is second nature to companies that are aligned with the principles of Conscious Capitalism. For the Container Store, Stonyfield and TOMS, among many others, having a successful business is linked with a mission to impact society in a positive way. For these companies social responsibility is in their identity and business strategy.
A recent book, Start Something That Matters, by Blake Mycoskie, tells the story of TOMS, but the larger point is what happens to leadership when the mission is allowed to transcend the leader.
TOMS name evolved from the idea of Shoes for a Better Tomorrow and Tomorrow’s Shoes. For every pair sold, TOMS donates a new pair to poor children. Since its founding five years ago, TOMS has donated one million pairs of shoes to needy children.
While TOMS story is significant, Mycoskie’s focus invites readers to find and develop their own story. He relies on entrepreneurial advice to start small, taking one step at a time. His table of contents includes wisdom like: “face your fears,” “be resourceful without resources,” “keep it simple,” “build trust,” “giving is good business” and “the final step.”
“When you have a memorable story about who you are and what your mission is,” he points out, “your success no longer depends on how experienced you are or how many degrees you have or who you know. A good story transcends boundaries, breaks barriers, and opens doors.” He adds that this is not only a key to starting a business, but also “to clarifying your own personal identity and choices.”
In the world of social media in which we live, a story evokes emotion and forges a connection, he says; people who buy TOMS “talk about the support of our mission rather than simply telling people they bought a nice shoe from some random shoe company.”
Mycoskie’s views on leadership changed. He said he had wanted to become a rock-star business leader, a CEO cult figure of his generation, when he started out in business more than ten years ago in his early twenties. However, the more he learned, the more he aspired to servant leadership. He wanted to create a culture where everyone in the organization feels attached to TOMS, can be a spokesman when appropriate, and is helped to help others perform to their fullest abilities.
At a time when trust is very low – in business and politics – with ongoing examples of leaders not owning mistakes, Mycoskie believes in admitting and correcting them. While there is tolerance for making mistakes, trust is such an important value at TOMS that there is zero tolerance for breaking trust internally.
TOMS and other conscious capitalism companies help drive awareness that trust is gained through a focus on respecting customers and employees with both products and work environments that value the person.
Mycoskie says he has shifted the goal for his business. While relieving children’s suffering by giving shoes to those without them is still a powerful driver, engaging more people in identifying and creating solutions to the world’s problems is his goal.
It is a goal that encourages and influences people to start something that matters.
A timeless message for any of us at any age but one that in 2011 seems especially important; it opens up further possibility for what social responsibility can mean in an ever uncertain world.
Gael O’Brien September 29, 2011
Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine