As a young boy growing up in Rohtak, India, I had no idea what my life’s work would be. But my parents instilled in me something that I have never forgotten: that work must have a sense of purpose beyond mere financial gain; that to be meaningful, work should make a positive and lasting difference in the lives of others.
In today’s hypercompetitive, high-tech economy, that simple truth is more relevant than ever.
Technology is advancing at breakneck speed, upending old ways of doing business and resetting the social contract between employers and employees. The explosion in social media, artificial intelligence, automation, and smart-machine technology has workers from Boston to Beijing wondering if they can compete in today’s marketplace, or if their jobs will even exist in the future.
Meanwhile, in Europe and the United States — as well as in rapidly developing countries like China, India, Brazil, and Russia — the wealth and inequality gap is widening, adding additional stresses for employers and employees alike.
Sadly, many people around the world have lost confidence in the ability of traditional institutions, including businesses, to solve the world’s most pressing problems — from lack of education, to poverty, to the impact of climate change on future generations. It has become increasingly clear that society cannot rely on the “invisible hand” of the market to integrate the pursuit of self-interest by individuals into a sustainable common good. If corporations are to remain a legitimate instrument of collective action, they must concern themselves directly with the well-being of those party to, and affected by, their actions.
Make no mistake, I believe capitalism to be the greatest creator of wealth and technological advancement the world has ever known. But as we enter what some call the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it is crucial that we concentrate on the skills and well-being of our workforces as well as the overall health and security of the societies we belong to.
Earlier this year, for the World Economic Forum in Davos, I wrote of the current climate of insecurity as a wake-up call for business leaders, and called on all in attendance to take a hard look at how we not only create jobs, but create jobs that give employees a sense of security and purpose.
The good news is that when businesses apply their skills, experience and scale, and commit to addressing society’s most complex challenges, the impact is widespread.
In India, for example, Unilever has partnered with local governments, banks, and NGOs to sell an affordable, bio-friendly soap and promote hand washing in areas where sanitation is a serious health concern. Initially, just a handful of women sold the soap, but by establishing a microloan program and partnering with local business, Unilever has expanded that small sales network to 43,000 outlets, reaching more than three million Indian households.
Increasingly, a company’s core values and social commitments matter. My team at Deloitte recently conducted a survey of millennials that found that 76 percent regard business as a “force for positive social impact.” And 59 percent believe multinationals have made “a positive impact” on the challenges they cite as their largest concerns, including economic and social progress, inequality, and corruption. Yet this figure is still significantly below the 74 percent whoe who believe multinationals have the potential to make a positive impact.
In short, the explosion in information sharing fostered by the Internet and social media is fundamentally changing the contract between businesses, their workers, and consumers. It is no longer enough to have a good product. A company’s purpose and the way it treats its employees and the global community to which it belongs is also of great importance.
Companies that are succeeding in this environment are communicating beyond their borders, engaging with consumers, clients, the media, governments and NGOs to improve their standing and capture mindshare. But more importantly, they’re doing what my parents taught me so many years ago: “It is possible to do well by doing good.”
Punit Renjen is chief executive officer of Deloitte Global.