Larry Fink, American BlackRock’s chief executive officer, the world's largest institutional investor which manages $6 trillion, made an unprecedented statement. He warned corporate giants that he is ready to stop investing in them unless they take responsibility for profits as well as the impact their actions have on both society and the environment.
If they do not know how to do so, they can ask Elsie Maio for help, who has been providing valuable advice to many corporations, banks and institutions inside and outside US for over two decades (IBM Corporate, Triodos Bank, SustainAbility Ltd, Bermuda’s cross-sector infrastructure hub, etc) and invented the patented SoulBranding℠ System.
This System works as a mutually beneficial model combining the high performance of enterprises with their social role, harmonizing the behavior and practices of executives with the ethical values of the company.
Maio founded and runs the Humanity Inc consulting firm and the SoulBranding Institute. She is a distinguished writer and speaker on issues regarding corporate social responsibility, whose work has been broadly valued and honored. She also mentors other entrepreneurs.
Maio is a member of the Strategic Advisory Board at the think-tank and media company Ethical Markets, which promotes the values of a green and fair economy. She has also served on the boards of the Socially Responsible Business Alliance of New York, the International Advisory Board of the Women’s International Network inter alia. According to the father of modern marketing, Phil Kotler, Maio is a “business values guru,” helping corporations that care about the future of society and the planet, to put into practice what they claim in marketing communications to be their code of social responsibility.
“In the 1960s, Milton Friedman’s saying that the sole purpose of business is business took hold,” Maio notes in an exclusive interview with Kathimerini. She visited Athens, a city she is dearly fond of, and gave a keynote speech as guest of the Hellenic-American Chamber of Commerce’s Women in Business Committee.
“Taking Friedman’s argument further then – if the only thing that a corporation really cares about is to maximize profits, then it is probably only pretending to care about the wellbeing and needs of society. This is the way corporations have operated for decades, and executives have been paid fortunes for having delivered the desired results: accumulating wealth for shareowners and inducing vast inequality,” she says.
“This has helped create the deep mistrust towards business we see today. Finally however, people in the US are awakening and reacting. Many experience the American dream as a lie that is actually based on inequality,” Maio adds.
Ironically, Maio lived that dream to a large extent. Starting her career in Smith Barney, the Institutional Investor Magazine and McKinsey consultancy firm, she acquired the material goods that embody that dream: expensive cars, a Fifth Avenue New York apartment and a second residence in the Hamptons. It was not enough, however, to answer a burning question.
“One day I woke up, remembering my younger self, when I was a kid. In school, we were collecting money to help poor children. At that time I could not understand why there were poor children who needed shoes in such an obviously abundant world and this question came back to me in my adult life,” Maio says.
That sparked a shift in her career. She left New York, sold the house in the Hamptons and withdrew to Santa Fe, New Mexico, so that she could find a way to articulate a new approach to corporate social responsibility coupled with the identity, the soul, the profitability and the sustainability of an enterprise.
“As so many today pursue the path of personal development and spiritual improvement as human beings, the opportunity is to expand that inquiry as citizens of the global demos. We also need to ask the tough, larger questions about society, and seek their answers, perhaps as Socrates and Plato did so beautifully. Ιt is crucial to consider what is the meaning of being a citizen on this Earth community. After all, beautiful questions cultivate beautiful minds, as the late poet John O’Donohue said. We need those beautiful minds to create our shared destiny,” she adds.
Children and the future
Then a life-changing meeting took place in the late 1990s with the American architect William McDonough, a pioneer of circular economy, sustainable building, objects and cities. “We acknowledged that a pivotal question, for all of us is, ‘Who will love the children and take care of their future’.” By that time, William McDonough had, among other breakthroughs, designed an aircraft interior that “you could eat, Elsie, and it wouldn’t harm you” – that is to say, it was free of harmful chemicals. And, after the end of its life cycle, it would leave no harmful residue on the earth. “That was his answer,” explains Maio. Our next question follows spontaneously. So, should corporations operate according to environmental criteria and at the same time take care of their profits?
“We live in the best times to shift from ‘I’ to ‘we.’ It is to corporations’ advantage to embrace the reality that we are living in a world of interconnected subsystems, and to adopt a holistic approach, integrating themselves, employees, consumers, suppliers and all their business activities into the overall ecosystem of humanity and the planet,” says the American entrepreneur.
“On one hand, these leaders will have a competitive advantage, on the other they will reduce their investment risks. Companies that refused to do this, as the coal industry, became dinosaurs,” she says. “And how can, for example, a beverage company not be concerned about global water issues and the conservation of water or the cost of energy required for the production process?”
From this point of view, what is also important is whether people and societies respond favorably to a corporation’s consistent behavior or if they reject it. “According to recent surveys, the millennial generation is interested in working for companies that are socially responsible and environmentally aware as part of their authentic identity, not just on selective occasions or in marketing messages,” adds Maio.
An enterprise that consciously takes its seat in the broader ecosystem does manage natural and financial resources in a sustainable way. It limits its carbon footprint, recycles and reuses, respects consumers and suppliers, does promote dialogue, encourages employees to express their opinion without sanctions, treats them equally, does not discriminate on grounds of sex, color or sexual orientation and pays equal wages, while ensuring equal participation for women in the corporate mechanism. ‘The gender pay gap should be of great concern to us. Let’s ask ourselves: is that the future we want for our daughters to keep being paid less than our sons?” Maio notes.
“Do we want the current model of dominants and victims, the model of companies dominating the market, the model of man's dominance over Nature, to continue?”
And why are there so few women in executive positions?
“Mainly there are four reasons: the unconscious bias against women when managers recruit and promote, as recent surveys show; the lack of balance between professional and family life; the fact that there are not enough female role models; and that we internalize our bias and pose obstacles to ourselves,” she replies. “Beyond the good practices, the legislation and the systemic initiatives, our collective mindset, our way of thinking needs to change; what is needed is an internal transformation of both women and men.”
Leadership and consciousness
It’s the same for a corporation as a whole. The transformational move from “I” to “we” starts and finishes with its leadership – how willing are its executives to look into the mirror and really transcend Milton Friedman’s status quo – because, as Maio stresses, “leadership is nothing less than modeling consciousness.”
A characteristic example is that of the Dutch Triodos Bank, a profitable and pioneering institution in sustainable banking with operations in The Netherlands, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Spain and France. The bank was built on the system of values and lessons of the well-known Austrian intellectual and architect Rudolf Steiner, who relied on nature itself and the cycle of sowing, reaping and rebirth. That system of values can be applied to each and every human activity, extending from education to business.
“When I started my collaboration with Triodos Bank, it had already been profitable for 25 years, financing entrepreneurs who shared a common holistic and moral approach. For Triodos, money is the fertilizer that enables the economy and society to bear fruits,” explains Maio.
For them, the issue was to move on to the next stage, to expand successfully in an onslaught of new international competition. As a result, the question of size, scale and values needed to be answered.
“Elsie, how can we take on the global banks and keep our values,” Peter Blom, the CEO asked. “Peter was challenged to form a strategy that went not only beyond the board of Triodos’ vision of the time, but also his own self-concept as a leader. And he did it. Today, Triodos is the hub of an international network of sustainable banks. Peter Blom himself serves as a counselor to national and international institutions on ethical and sustainable banking and investment issues,” says Maio.
Of course, “some corporations, like banks, still prefer to pay high penalties for fraud and misdeeds instead of transforming themselves,” Maio concludes. “In the end, it is on us, the customer-citizens, to responsibly decide where we deposit our money, where entrust the wellbeing of our children, and more – how we will each advocate for the true business of business.”