In 2012 Larry Fink, CEO of the world’s largest asset manager, Blackrock, penned a transformative annual letter to corporate CEOs. He wrote that the companies that take purpose seriously, that integrate it into their business offering and operations are the companies that will succeed. He launched the legitimacy of what is commonly referred to as “stakeholder capitalism”. Capitalism works when it addresses the interests of investors, businesses, communities and people – because we exist in an interconnected puzzle. What affects one affects the others.
Many saw this as the solidifying the shift from seeing social and environmental issues as externalities that companies were not responsible for, to issues that companies not only needed to take responsibility for, but areas that would strengthen corporate performance. Social issues, with their risks and opportunities, emerged as important to corporate success as product development, operational efficiency and financial acumen.
With the recent failure of US banks and Credit Suisse, criticisms have emerged that social and environmental issues are responsible for diluting the focus on business management. In the wake of woke, critics of social issues have found fresh evidence to support their perspective on the role of the corporation. This is not just a war of words. Critics are leveraging tremendous political and financial power. Blackrock, as one example, has lost $4 billion of government pension and treasury fund investment because State legislatures are boycotting firms that boycott fossil fuel companies.
This boycott business battle is being waged in other ways. Walmart, in the face of #boycottwalgreens, has decided not to sell mifepristone, the “morning after” pill, in the 21 Republican-controlled states. In Florida, Disney denounced legislation that prohibited classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity through grade three: Governor Ron DeSantis then dissolved Disney’s self-governing district. Addressing social issues that are relevant to community and business success, now comes with financial costs.
But addressing social issues has also be the source of interesting corporate collaborations: 50 large companies committed $50 billion to fight racial inequality; a corporate + community collection of over 300 entities co-signed a brief submitted to the Supreme Court in support of same-sex marriage. And in 2019, The Business Roundtable released a statement signed by 181 CEOs who committed to leading their companies for the mutual benefit of all stakeholders: customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders. CEOs see how collaborating can achieve mutual, and individual, success.
Championing social issues can be a potent source of credibility and reputational equity, earning the respect of customers and employees; it can also be an effective way to mitigate business risk; and can be a source of lucrative investment. To borrow from the CEO of Mars, Poul Weihrauch, “the companies that back off their social and environmental commitments in the face of nonsense political attaches, risk alienating a generation of talent.” What is now almost agreed-upon thinking, profit and purpose are not opposing drivers; they can be mutually supportive.
Every year Larry Fink writes two letters: one to the CEOs of the companies that Blackrock invests in; and another letter to Blackrock’s shareholders. But this year Larry Fink wrote only one letter – to both audiences. He did this because, as he stated, “all of our stakeholders are facing so many of the same issues.” Perhaps this demonstrates that the issues we are facing are so complex and interconnected that the only way we have any chance of addressing them is to work on them together. Perhaps the collaboration of seemingly competing interests can create approaches that work for mutual success.
At Bovitz we know that collaboration is the most direct path to competitive success. When we work in teams, respecting the voices and expertise of each individual, we develop innovative approaches, unearth revelatory insights and exceed the expectations of our clients. We have learned how collaboration can align competing and differing interests to their mutual benefit.
Larry Fink’s single letter shows us how the standard thinking about how the market is driven by competing interests – corporate vs community, public vs private, self vs collective – is no longer helpful if we are to find next-stage solutions to our social, financial and environmental challenges. Mutual support, respect and teamwork are the requisites for competitive success. While perhaps not his intention, Larry Fink may have announced the primacy of collaboration for success.