It’s Time to Think Bigger: Collective Action May Be Required

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By Dr. Doug Wilson

As Black Lives Matter protesters continue to march and communities take a hard look at the inequalities in our society, purposeful CEOs are taking action. Going beyond issuing statements of support, they are examining how they need to do more to address embedded system issues that don’t seem to get better over time, but in fact can grow worse.

I’m fortunate to be Chairman of a group of 40 leading CEOs in Orange County, California, who are contributing to their local community and have been for several years to help drive system change that will address social inequity and create more opportunity for all.

Three and a half years ago we asked ourselves a question – “If we work together collectively and work to drive system change in our community over an extended period of time, is it worth the effort? Or are we better off just working individually as companies to make an impact and fulfill our commitments?”

The answer to this strategic question was a clear yes to working collectively.  And the CEOs went on to say, “based on the challenges our county faces, we must work together with a focused strategy to make a long-term difference.  Working independently will not get the job done.”

The CEOs then proceeded to do what is called a causal loop analysis.  This research drives you to root issues, that if not fixed, will continue to produce symptoms such as the working poor, hunger, homelessness, crime and a myriad of other seemingly endless challenges.

We learned that in our region that the middle class was being hollowed out.  Employment was growing, but the better jobs – the higher paying jobs – were not growing at a pace to provide an opportunity for people to thrive.  We learned that if we invest in innovation jobs – jobs that drive a multiplier of five other new jobs –  two professional and three service – we were going to get at solving root social  issues in our region. If we did not grow the innovation jobs such as in software, AI, or medical technology, the symptoms of low paying service jobs would grow worse, and we would end up in a never-ending cycle of social inequity.

We are now in the early stages of a better jobs strategy. The end game is a better community with fewer people living at poverty levels and the opportunity for the many to enjoy a quality of life they were not able to attain before. Without business intervention and clear focus, the better jobs strategy would not be realized. Government can build better roads and better funding mechanisms for the poor, but they are not as skilled at structuring targeted innovations to drive system change.

Root issue work requires a multi-stakeholder approach at a regional level. Other regions taught us it is best led by business with academic institutions, non-profits, and governments all working together, each doing their part to move the needle in a positive direction. Why business?  Because business has three important levers: 1. The power to convene the right people in the room.  2. The ability to use data and business processes to drive results.  3. The ability to leverage multiple resources such as talent, money, and a clear strategy to think and act nimbly over the long term.

Every region in America has its own unique issues. There is no one size fits all. We believe local business leadership is required if long-term system change is to occur.  In Orange County we are fortunate to be learning from nine other regions around the country on how they are also driving system change. We all believe we cannot just treat symptoms but must get at root causes.

Every big company I know has a social responsibility statement in place.  Not many companies have figured out how to work collectively with other companies and other stakeholders to drive the long-term system change required in their communities. The events in the last month in America prompt business to not just say they believe in creating opportunity for all but also answer the question, “What can we do uniquely in our community to address the entrenched issues that don’t seem to budge?”

The Itasca Project, a business-led leadership group in Minneapolis, has made progress on entrenched social issues over the years. With the protests that occurred following the death of George Floyd, the group had to look in the mirror and say, “What more must we do? And how do we do it differently?”  Lynn Casey, the current Chair of the group, is confident the business leaders will double down on their efforts and work to address the social disparities that continue to be so difficult to change, even in a city as community minded as Minneapolis.

There is a movement afoot with American business leadership that is bending the future of America in a positive direction. As Rebecca Henderson says in her new book, World on Fire, CEOs are in a prime position to reimagine capitalism. We can reimagine a better future for us all, not only through creating customer value and working out social responsibility programs but through a collective effort at local levels to drive system change.

Our group, The CEO Leadership Alliance of Orange County, is on a journey that we hope will not only improve the lives of many individuals but will shape the future of our county for the next 100 years.  Change like this only gets done with leaders who believe in the power of focus, collaboration, and long-term investment. The reward is knowing we will truly make a difference and along the way, forge meaningful friendships that will be treasured forever.  

If you would like to explore how to mobilize collective action in your region, please reach out.