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Carol Cone – Utilizing Purpose to Grow Your Business

April 14, 2021

Carol Cone has been helping businesses better engage their employees, build relationships with their customers and improve their communities.

Carol Cone believes that having a profound purpose that employees buy into is integral for businesses to fulfill their full potential. She discusses her work as the CEO of Carol Cone On Purpose, where she helps build partnerships between companies, brands and social issues for deep business and societal impact.

The following is an edited transcript of the Ag Future podcast episode with Carol Cone hosted by Tom Martin. Click below to hear the full audio or listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

 Tom:                                   I’m Tom Martin, and joining us for this latest conversation in our purpose-driven business series is Carol Cone, founder of the firm Carol Cone On Purpose.

                                    She is regarded the mother of social purpose, working for 25 years to build partnerships between companies, brands and social issues for deep business and societal impact.

                                    Welcome, Carol.

Carol Cone:              Thank you for having me to the show, and I’m thrilled to be talking about my favorite topic.

Tom:                          Well, let me ask you about that. What is a purpose-driven business? Isn’t the purpose to serve the bottom line, the shareholder? Is there something beyond that?

Carol Cone:              Oh, actually, I’m so glad that you asked that, because it was Milton Friedman, in the late ‘70s, who said, “The purpose of the corporation is just to serve the shareholders.” But that — in a world where we have total transparency, and we have so much choice, and we also recognize that we have climate challenges and social challenges and, you know, economic challenges, that — companies today who are going to win in the marketplace, whether they are B-to-C or B-to-B, they stand for something beyond the bottom line that’s based in humanity.

                                    And simply put, the companies today are recognizing, “What’s our core competency, and how can we take that competency and apply it either (to) society or the environment?” And when they do that, they have a profound purpose, a reason for being, that lights up their employees, their customer relationships, their community relationships, their consumer relationships. It really allows them to fulfill their full potential.

Tom:                          The Unilever CEO, Paul Polman, has said that what people think, say and do should be aligned. And that might be obvious, but is this the essence of a business that has worked to develop and express its purpose?

Carol Cone:              Well, let me first say that I had the joyous opportunity to work with Unilever. I got to meet Paul Polman a number of times. And he actually — in all the thousands of encounters he’s had with people, he sent people my way, so he does recognize that I do have this expertise in purpose.

                                    And (with) this alignment of what the company stands for, you can’t just say, “We stand for it.” You have to act. And so, when he said that people should think, say and do and have this alignment, and when you have a purpose that is beyond making a profit, that’s where you truly, again, ignite your stakeholders — not just shareholders, your stakeholders — to truly perform to, you know, the wildest levels beyond their wildest dreams.

Tom:                          Carol, I wonder: How many of us know whether our company stands for something?

Carol Cone:              It’s a great question. And I believe that — you know, I’m a third-generation entrepreneur. And you know, I always — when I started my company — and you were very kind; you mentioned 25 years. I started my company in 1980. (But) it’s still young, and I didn’t know what I stood for, but about three years into it, I recognized that I wanted — I love branding, I love marketing and I love the social challenges of the day.

                                    I grew up in the ‘60s and the ‘70s, and we had the Vietnam War in our face, and we had the Civil Rights movement, and I just felt that companies could take their assets and make them work harder for society. And so, my purpose, (which) I found when I was very young, was to help elevate the purpose of companies and brands, as well as professionals, students and such.

                                    So, a company must understand what it, you know — (you must) stand for something, because you talk about it as that North Star. Like, “Why are we doing what we’re doing?”

Tom:                          Mm-hmm.

Carol Cone:              And, when you do that, and then you add dimensionality to it, it just becomes this ignition for just performance and possibility.

Tom:                          Well, let’s say that we want to build a purpose-driven organization from the ground up. What building blocks, what kinds of tools do we need to make that happen?

Carol Cone:              Well, it’s important — and usually, if you’re going to build up from the ground up, you’re probably a small company or you found the company — I’ll tell you a great story. It’s a very — it’s fascinating. It’s about a company called Charlotte Pipe.

                                    And Charlotte Pipe makes pipes. They make clay pipes and metal pipes for water and for, you know, basically, mostly water municipalities and for people who have farms and things like that. And you know, you think, “How can a company that makes pipes have a purpose?” But, you know, it was about — it was a family-owned firm (that) decided one day to say, “You know what? We’re going to make the best pipes ever in the world. And not only are we going to make them so that they are just the top-quality and all the parts and bits, you know, they integrate with each other and they perform; we’re going to give great warranties, and we’re also going to have great, great policies for our employees. So, our employees not only get a fair wage, and they get, you know, health benefits and such, but they know, at the end of the day, that they can stand behind (us) no matter where they are in the process of making these pipes, because we’re going to make the best pipes in the world.”

And so, sometimes, your purpose can be something as simple as just terrific quality, and then, making sure that your employees — because employees are the number-one stakeholder to support and to build companies that truly over-perform.

So they just did that, and they had these great values, and they live the values, they live their integrity daily, and it was an amazing company, and they made pipes. You know, that’s a lot different than when we think about Unilever, Unilever and Dove.

You know, Dove was basically soap. It was a white bar of soap. It really didn’t have many attributes that differentiated it. But one day, some of the marketers at Dove, they made a major piece of research around the globe. And, they have like, oh, I don’t know, hundreds and hundreds of pages from this research, and they were asking about women and beauty and how they (use) soap, about themselves, (and there) was this one little, little, teeny, tiny fact, and the fact was that it was something like only 4% of women worldwide feel beautiful. And so, some really, really smart person at Unilever said, “You know what? We’re going to take that fact — because we’re selling to women, right? And we want women to feel good.” And they started the campaign for Real Beauty, and it’s been around now for over, oh, like, 15 or 18 years now. And they supported all sorts of ways, in a realistic way, to help women feel confident and good about their selves, and that beauty was on the inside; it wasn’t just on the outside.

And that became one of the first purpose-driven brands at Unilever. And now, Unilever is certainly the gold-standard company that anybody will study to truly understand (purpose-driven businesses). They have brands that have super-human powers, and they have brands that have — that take on qualities that might be one step remote, but their purpose is to make sustainable living commonplace. And they touch 2.5 billion — with a “b” — people a day with their products, whether it’s Knorr soups or whether it’s Dirt Is Good laundry detergent or whether it’s Ben & Jerry’s ice cream or whether it’s Lifebuoy soap.

And each one of those brands — they have about 30 brands that are now purposeful, (and) those brands grow about 70% faster than their non-purpose brands, and they return over 75% of the profit to the company, because they stand for something more than just features and benefits.

Tom:                          I’m guessing that it takes a lot of thought, discussion and debate to work through this process, and there may be some impatience involved in the meantime.

Carol Cone:              Absolutely. Yeah.

Tom:                          How much time, reasonably, should we give ourselves to allow for the development of a clear statement of purpose?

Carol Cone:              Well, first of all, I love that you said “debate,” because a purpose is only as good if it’s authentic to the organization, its values and the people within that organization.

                                    So, we’ve had — we’ve worked with companies to develop their purpose, and we’ve also helped companies evolve their purpose, so we can study them. And it takes anywhere from — to do it well — six months to years. It could be couple of years.            

                                    And what’s really important — because you asked about, like, “What building blocks and tools do you need?” You need to ask some really good questions, and it needs to be not just the C-suite — not just the CEO, the CMO, the chief human resources person, the CFO, etc. It also needs the guy and the gal on the factory floor. And it’s harder to get them, because they may not have computers. 

                                    But, you know, we have worked with a company that has 47,000 people around the globe; they have over 100 different locations. And we did everything, from — we did phone interviews with their entire leadership team around the globe (for) an hour each, and that was 200 (people). So, that was a lot (of) time. But I will tell you, I had set — that company was so authentic, and it had such ethos and soul. I only had — out of a few hundred, because I did most of those calls, I only had five (dodge), five that were really boring.

                                    Now, in addition to that, we went around the globe, and we travelled to eight different locations, from China to Malaysia to Costa Rica and Brazil and the United States and Ireland and such, and we did workshops and focus groups. And so, we have, like, the, you know, the leadership interviews; we had the focus groups. And the focus groups have people from the factory floor.

So, we got conversations going about, you know, “What do we stand for? What’s our core expertise? What’s it like when, on a daily basis, when we’re at our best? What are some of the challenges that (manifest) when we don’t do well? Who do we admire, maybe in our industry or outside of our industry, who truly knows what they stand for and has fabulous cultures and really accelerated sales but who, also, is helping the local community, or who’s got great environmental programs?”

So, there’s more questions than that, but those are some of the core questions you ask. And then you need to debate, and then you need to say, you know, “How, let’s say, boldly, (do) we want to take on the world with our purpose?” Then, we want to take on something that’s more conservative. That’s another part of the tools that we utilize.

We have a process that I developed probably about 25 years ago that, you know, it’s no longer guessing; there’s truly a way that you can be a guide. And so, anybody who’s listening, there are ways to follow so that you’re not just guessing, because you don’t want to guess at this. It’s too important.

Tom:                          I visited your blog, Carol, and I saw that you’ve written that authentic purpose equals thoughtful, real and sustained actions that impact the business internally and externally, while also having that positive impact on society that you talked about earlier. Does this boil down to nurturing a culture of transparency, accountability, honesty and integrity, those kinds of things?

Carol Cone:              Well, when we talk authentic purpose — we did a piece of research. I’ve done about 30 pieces of research over the last 30 years, because I, when I started doing this work, I made the joke that I could have had a conversation about purpose at a table for four or six. And American Express was doing this work early on where they had a promotion where, if you use the American Express card, they would donate a penny or two to the restoration of the Statue of Liberty. And that was kind of the first big “cause program.”

So, in the early days, no one was talking about this. Today, because of the internet, because anybody can check off the reputation of the company — you know, what are the customers saying? What are people, you know — why are they getting three stars or zero stars? Do they, you know, like, do they stand behind their products and services?

                                    So, I — this last summer, I got really, really angry, because there was a lot of, can I say, “purpose washing,” “green washing,” “pink washing.” And part of that also came from this research that we did called the B-to-B Purpose Paradox, and it’s on our website, (at) Carol Cone On Purpose. And we asked businesses in the B-to-B realm — they were financial services, manufacturing, healthcare, technology, etc. — and we said, “Do you have a purpose?” And 86% said, “Yes. We have a purpose. We know what we stand for.”

                                    I was like, “What? There’s no way, because B-to-B world trails B-to-C world.” But when we asked deeper questions and peeled back the onion and we asked, “Do you activate — do you have an authentic purpose that you bring into your employees and your innovation and your operations?” Only 24% truly had activated it.

                                    So, getting back to this essay that I wrote last year about authentic purpose, it does boil down to walking the talk, living your values, integrating why you exist. Like, if you’re going to be Unilever and make sustainable living commonplace, what are your sustainability practices internally? What are your sustainability practices with your supply chain? How do you treat the farmers in Madagascar who are harvesting vanilla beans? You know, do you — is there a fair wage, etc.?

                                    So, you need to walk the talk, and yes, you need a culture that is transparent, that has high integrity, and that there’s honesty. And you know what? You’re not going to be perfect. That’s the other thing I really want to share with anybody listening who’s on a purpose journey. It is a journey. You know, Unilever had — they had a wonderful Dove campaign for Real Beauty, but they also had some missteps with Dove, some big, bad missteps. And — but you know what? Most of the time, their integrity is there, so a consumer or even an employee gives them the benefit of the doubt.

Tom:                          I’m going to dig further into that in just a few minutes. But I want to ask you, first: Has this coronavirus pandemic served to underscore the value and even, maybe, the necessity of engaging in those thoughtful, real and sustained actions that you were talking about?

Carol Cone:              Well, first of all, companies — the first thing that companies had to do during COVID is that they had to address the safety of their employees. And thank God that most companies did. Even if they didn’t have the world’s deepest purpose or greatest community relationships, they recognized that they had to, if they let people work from home — and you saw companies with 50,000, 100,000 employees pivot, almost, on a dime to let people work from home. The greater challenges were companies that had to keep people in their plants, and they had to manufacture and, you know, could they get PPE, and could they socially distance and such.

                                    So, COVID accelerated companies that were values-driven. And, I would say it also accelerated decision-making, which was really, really, really interesting because, you know, companies, per se, the larger they get, the slower they get in decision-making; they get more people involved, (and) they get very conservative. And COVID really pushed companies forward quickly.

                                    So, for example, you had AB InBev that, you know, all of a sudden, they took their manufacturing from beer, and they were making hand sanitizer. Same thing with P&G. They had over 200 different NGOs around the globe they are working with, and they immediately pivoted to help them not only survive but then make, again, PPE, hand sanitizer, things like that.

                                    So, COVID has really brought to the fore (the question), “Why does a business exist?” And companies that truly, truly rose to the occasion and helped their employees and then helped the community and then started helping small businesses survive and really, you know, helped all of us, you know, with mental health problems, or donating a lot of food — I mean, you know, there are so many families going hungry, and then (there were) tons and tons and tons of food drops and such.

COVID did, I believe, show the humanity of companies. And I don’t think that companies can go backwards once they’ve done that, and I think the smartest companies will build on that.

Tom:                          Yeah. We thought we knew what a game-changer was before COVID, didn’t we?

Carol Cone:              Right.

Tom:                          So, Carol, in those discussions and the debate that we talked about earlier, is it ever asked, “How do we address the needs of our customers, quality-wise and price-wise, while also remaining nimble enough,” in this ever-changing world that you just talked about, “to sustain our relevance?”

Carol Cone:              I use the word “innovation” because for a company’s customers to be at the top of their game, to have quality — and if you think about Alltech in the ingredients, what — Alltech is research-based, and it’s constantly looking at what are the elements in its products that will help to create natural, appropriate, faster growth of, whether it’s poultry or whether it’s beef or such, in a way that is nutrient-dense that, again, is natural.

And so, that company must focus on innovation. And you’re seeing, today, that purpose-led companies have incubators, that they’re funding innovation incubators. And again, you can go to — I know the Mars company has one. I know that AB InBev, I know that Unilever, P&G, the big — General Mills — the big companies have these incubators on the side, because they’re really looking for that next new idea to keep them relevant and to benefit their customers.

Tom:                          You referenced, earlier, the C-suite and bringing folks from the factory floor into the conversation. And so, I’m wondering: In terms of employee engagement, why is purpose important to everybody, from top to bottom?

Carol Cone:              You know, I would like to say (that it’s) what gets you up in the morning to go to work. Do you get up in the morning (because) “I’m going to make money for XYZ CEO”? Or, you know, do you get up in the morning because you’re going to make the best darn leather boots that anybody’s ever made, and those leather boots are going to be, you know — they’re made of all-natural ingredients, per se, and they give you tremendous support, and they allow you — they don’t have a thread that marks the path, so you’re going to leave no thread behind?

Now, of course, I’m making this up, per se. But the point is (that) having this greater reason for being just allows an individual at any level to — and it’s really funny, when you talk to CFOs, and I’ve seen CFOs that love the purpose of their company. They are just lit, and it’s really, really funny, in addition to the person on the factory floor. And so, it just gives you that energy and that North Star. You’re looking up to the stars to say, “I’m doing something to better my neighborhood, my community, my city, my country or the world.”

And so, to be inside of a purpose driven company — I’ll give you, I’ll give you another great example that’s one of my proudest moments, that, early on, I worked with the company called the Rockport Shoe Company. And their CEO, he came to me and he said, “I really want to build my company on something different.” He didn’t have a lot of money, but he had these really, really unique shoes, and they (had) Nike inners. So, they have, like, these athletic inners, but they had street shoe outers. And nobody has ever done that before. And so, they were ahead of their time; they’re a little bulky-looking, but, you know, for a year — it took me a year to find some gem, some reasons that these shoes were just more than shoes. And the CEO gave me a little clue.

                                    We would go to the trade shows and would have these beautiful pictures of people walking in his shoes, walking in a field, walking down the city street, walking in the neighborhood. And he didn’t, say, want to become the walking shoe company, but he did have these pictures. And so, one day, I realized — I did some research, and I realized (that) there’s no walking shoes for fitness and for health.


And so, long story short, we had a fellow who walked around the country. He talked to kids. He said, “Eat properly, don’t smoke, and walk.” He walked 11,208 miles in every state. We then flew him back to Massachusetts, to the University of Massachusetts. They had a health and fitness facility to study his health, because he was going to be the world’s first (and) longest walking experiment. And when he finished, not only was he wicked healthier, but we had a book, we had a movie, and we had a lot of data that said walking for health and fitness was really good for you.

                                    And we continue to create a walking institute and walking tests and all sorts of walking information. Rockport renamed itself “the walking shoe company.” Walking became the nation’s newest fitness activity. It became a billion-dollar category at retail, and Rockport grew eight times (its size) in four years. They were wildly successful, and then Reebok bought them.

                                    But it was giving — and I’ll tell you, they had this thing about (their company) feeling really different. One day, I was out in the loading dock area, and I happen to, like, listen in to a guy that was taking boxes off of a UPS truck. And the UPS truck (driver) asked this employee — this was, like, a guy that was like, you know, 24 years old — “What’s this company, Rockport? What do you do here?” And this young man, he stopped, he just kind puffed off, and he said, “I work for Rockport. We’re the walking shoe company.”

                                    And, you know, the company not only made walking shoes, but they gave their employees a free pair of shoes; they gave them a walking book, (and) they gave them time to walk during the day. And it just gave that young man and, then, the entire company a reason for being, far beyond just selling a shoe. And it just made me — and that was, that was kicking off my purpose career.

And then, we did Reebok and human rights and Avon and breast cancer and PNC Financial Services and early childhood education, and we reinvented the Aflac duck. You know, the big Aflac duck that says, “Aflac!”

Well, (they) donated $125 million to pediatric cancer and — but the two did not meet. But we knew the kids who went through pediatric cancer had a thousand days of treatments. They were lonely, and they were sick, and they were scared. And so, we invented a social robot that helped those children. It was a companion for children that they could interact with, and they could put emoji cards on it, and the duck would quack with their feelings. So, those kids wouldn’t be alone. And Aflac was reborn in terms of its purpose and its engagement with society. And it helped also grow their sales tens of millions of dollars, because they created something called My Special Aflac Duck, a social work that help kids going through a really hard time with cancer.

So, purpose. And when you find that purpose — and it’s just an extraordinary accelerant to alignment between all your stakeholders and, then, growth.

Tom:                          Let’s stay in the C-suite for just a moment, and if you would, describe for us the traits of that successful leadership team that’s authentic and credible in the way that it models purpose in an organization and creates what you were just talking about: employee buy-in.

Carol Cone:              And you know, I’m going to say that — how do they model it? Because a company that has a purpose must walk the talk.

                                    So, people. If you’re going to sell to a diverse consumer base, you need to have diversity of people working to get better ideas, to get better energy. So, it’s walking the talk, so that when you talk about your value of being innovative or listening to everyone’s ideas, you need to activate them, and you need to model the behaviors, day in and day out. And it’s coaching. It’s mentoring. It’s innovating. And it’s also taking what you stand for down to your supply chain.

So, it could be such as what Alltech does. You know, they have this amazing commitment to Haiti, to the poorest of the poor in Haiti, where they’re sourcing coffee. Because they want to help, you know, individuals, farmers, the coffee farmers, have a better life. And then, they go sell that at retail, and they put the money back into it. It’s cause-related marketing and such.

                                    But they’re these virtuous circles that companies are recognizing that they have to be. And today, especially with the millennials and Gen Z, (they know) that there’s a choice about where you work, and people don’t want to park their values at the door. They want to work for a values-based company that’s not only going to help with their training but also, at the end of the day, when you leave the office or you go home to your family or to, like, you know, the local fact or game or something, you talk about — like, I remember, again, going back to Rockport, (and people would be proud to say), “I work at Rockport. I work at the walking shoe company.” And in it, there’s a pride. You can’t put a dollar amount on that pride.

And companies today, it is now becoming — it used to be just the early adopters, the Ben & Jerry’s and the Body Shops and such, (but) it is now the mainstream that companies recognize that they want to attract the best and brightest.

And the best — I’ll give you another example: Tata Consultancy Services. They’re the world’s largest information technology company. They have more than 50,000 employees. They’re based in India, but they’re all over the world. They are larger than Accenture and IBM. And when they bring in employees, they spend three months going through training and learning about the culture. And then, their first customer — it’s a not-for-profit, and so, they allow their new employees to really feel their integrity and their values and action. It’s extraordinary. And their turning rate is barely anything. Their retention is 87–89%.

Tom:                          Wow!

Carol Cone:              (That’s) unheard of in companies. It’s because they live their values from the very (start), from recruiting to retention, from the highest senior level to the factory. Well, they don’t really have factories, because they are software.

Tom:                          Well, Carol, I made a mental note to return to something that you brought up earlier in our conversation and, also, going back to your blog.

                                    You note there that there’s recent research that finds that 65% of consumers want businesses to take a stand on issues that are important to them, and that rate goes up to 74% among 18-to-39-year-olds. How does a policy of purpose inform how an organization responds to these forces, what it stands for, and does this include making clear what it opposes?

Carol Cone:              This is a — okay, so activism and advocacy is very hard for companies today. It’s really hard, because no matter what side you’re going to pick, you’re always going to have your detractors. So, what — the first thing we say to any of our clients is, “Don’t just jump in” — that you need to look at, “What do you stand for at the core?” And then, you need to decide whether you’re going to be bold and you’re going to stick your neck out, as Nike did with Colin Kaepernick.

                                    But, you know, I knew, when Nike did that — Nike is a “bad boy” company. Now, there are also about one of these days too. But, you know, that, doing what they did with Colin Kaepernick — you know, everybody said, “Oh, they’re losing all this money and their stock price,” etc., etc. Yeah, their stock price took a hit, but then it went, then it went right back up, through the roof, because they walk their talk; they live on their values. And, you know, they’re not perfect; (they’ve) had a lot of issues with women, and now, they’re trying to be much more equitable with women.

                                    But a company has got to look at its core, and it is, it’s a tough decision to make. It truly is, in terms (of) standing out. And I think DE&I — diversity, equity and inclusion — that’s where, you know, companies today, they know they have to act, but they also have to understand. They have to start with their policies internally. And do they have equitable pay? Do they have equitable advancement, you know? And they have to start there, and a lot of companies just are looking at, you know, the terms or the words they use and the way that they advance people, (but) they’ve got to start, really, at home.

                                    So, corporate activism, regarding (that), you know, you’ve got to be really, really careful, and there’s no one roadmap to follow. You know, you also want to look at: do you want to be left behind? So, again, there’s no easy answer to this, but you certainly need to look at your history and how you’ve acted and what your internal policies are before you take a stand at all.

Tom:                          But is any success in recruiting the best new generation of talent going to depend on a company’s willingness to respond to these social, political and environmental dynamics?

Carol Cone:              Well, I think we have to — you don’t have to respond to them all, because if you respond to all things, you will stand for nothing. That’s the first thing.

                                    Climate and the environment, I think it’s fairly indisputable that you’ve got companies today, and their ESG — their environmental, their social and their governance approaches — that, environmentally, they have to cut their carbon footprint. They have to be more environmentally, you know, sensitive. And there’s lots of innovation that comes out of that, which is great.

                                    And we are turning to an electric economy, which is exciting. And, you know, I’m going to give a shout-out to Mary Barra assigned with this podcast, this interview. But Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, they are going to stop making combustion engines by 2035. They’re not going to make them anymore for regular cars and light-duty vehicles — like, oh, my God, they are going to go all-electric. That’s so exciting.

                                    So, you know, I think that companies, they have (questions about) DE&I, (and) you’re going to have to respond. But how will you respond? And the level and the goals that, the goals that you set and how you measure and report back, you know, that’s (just) as important. You don’t have to go from zero to 60 instantly, but you need to make steady progress. The level of your boldness depends on, again, your culture.

                                    I also think that there’s going to be — a lot of my colleagues who are in the C-suite, and they say that there’s going to be this next generation of leadership, the next gen, the Mary Barras, who’s very (much) on the cutting edge. You know, she started out as an engineer at General Motors, you know, (and now she’s) a woman running a car company. How — my God! And she’s fabulous, and she’s really, really great. And Indra Nooyi, who ran Pepsi-Co, and she really helped them. You know, she had a philosophy (of) performance with purpose, and that, you know, (she) decided to make better-for-you drinks and (add) less sugar and salt in the snacks and things like that. And they’re on a wonderful journey too.

                                    So, there’s going to be a new generation of leadership that recognizes that you cannot be successful in a society that’s unhealthy. And so, you will see dramatic changes happening again and again and again.

Tom:                          The Unilever chief, Paul Polman, has said that leaders need to have the courage to show that they’re vulnerable, that they’re willing to ask for help, which would seem to counter the historical notion of leadership, where just the opposite has been expected.

                                    Has the world become more receptive to a more down-to-earth, more accessible servant-leadership style?

Carol Cone:              I love that you talk about servant leadership, because in the earliest days when I started doing this work, there was a guy named Jack Stack. And if anybody knows (or) reads his book, it was about (being an) open book with management and leadership. And it was pretty much about servant leadership.

                                    And there’s a company that I have (on) one of my podcasts called Lineage Logistics. And nobody knows them; they’re about a $3-billion B-to-B. They are cold-storage refrigeration warehouses. And they handle, from field to store, about one-third of the food in the United States and about one-tenth of the food around the globe.

                                    And their leader knew that, you know, “I’ve got people in heavy coats in cold-storage facilities that are wearing boots, and this is not glamorous.” But he recognized that he needed to have a purpose, and their purpose is, basically — the shorthand is to feed the world. It’s also to stop food waste, but to feed the world. And he’s applying — it’s really interesting, when you talk to him, because he is applying, he wants to be the greatest technological cold-storage facility, you know, around the globe. And they have all sorts of innovations, but he treats his employees — he’s got a great CHRL.

                                    And I interviewed him on my show and talked about servant leadership and talked about — if you think about your traditional pyramid, you’ve got the C-suite at the top, and you’ve got all the, you know, the worker bees at the bottom. Servant leadership flips that. It has the workers at the top and it has the C-suite at the bottom. And that’s what Lineage does. They are there to serve their employees, to give them great benefits, to give them opportunities to grow, to give them an understanding that they are helping to feed the world. And, actually, during COVID, what they did — they did this wonderful thing about collaborating with all of their customers. And they created this goal to feed a hundred million meals to people during COVID through Feeding America.

Tom:                          Wow!

Carol Cone:              And, you know — and again, they’re cold storage of food that, you know — they’ve got all these, you know, like, forklifts that are driving around. It is not glamorous, but their people feel (like), “My God, I get up in the morning because I am, I am helping with food waste, and I’m feeding the world.” And, Greg Lehmkuhl, who’s the CEO, he gets that, that their purpose is at their core, (that) it’s the soul of their company, and that he is there to serve him employees.

                                    So, you are spot-on. And I love that Paul Polman, you know, he’s gone on from Unilever, and he’s doing wonderful, really collaborative work with big industry groups. Like, I think that’s he’s got, like, I don’t know, 25 companies in apparel, and they’re trying to totally reinvent the apparel industry — dyes and things like that.

                                    And courage is really important. You’ve got to have courage to do this. But, when you do it, this is how you reinvent: it’s called stakeholder-based capitalism. And it’s truly, you know, taking Milton Friedman and turning him on his head — (it’s) saying it’s not about “when you do all these other things right to your stakeholders, then you make the profits, and then you serve your shareholders,” but you serve all your other constituents.

Tom:                          It sounds like it’s a matter of being comfortable in your own skin and developing a really powerful sense of confidence.

Carol Cone:              It is a powerful sense of confidence. And then, you also need to — the other thing (is) that you can’t go for the short term. So, one of the things that Paul Polman did is that he said, you know, he’s not going to report quarterly earnings, which was shocking. And he basically said, “If you don’t like my — if you don’t like the way I’m reporting, then don’t buy my stock.”

                                    And it’s hard for companies who are public who, you know, you have to give guidance, you have to report quarterly. But this is a game, a purpose game, and the stakeholder-based capitalist approach and strategy — it’s not a “game” game, but I’m using that as, you know, a euphemism — is that you got to have a long view, because innovations — you’ve got to bring the, you know, how you’re going to serve the climate and society. You’ve got to take a longer view. You just can’t — you know, (with) purpose, you can’t flip a switch on purpose. You can’t turn it on and off.

Tom:                          Going back to something else that you raised earlier in our conversation, Carol — and apologies for this cliché — but they say a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Do you think it’s possible for a purpose-driven organization to influence the cultures and the behaviors and achieve alignment among the companies within its supply chain?

Carol Cone:              Well, you know who did that incredibly well? Oh boy, you know, take a page from the book of Walmart.

I mean, Walmart decided — and I was at one of these meetings, at, I think, it was business with social responsibility. And they said — and Walmart is doing this in a number of ways. They are saying that you have to report on your environmental footprint, per se, and you’re going to get, you know — there are all there reports you have to do, and based on how you come out, you will get, uh, your position on the shelf. And everybody wants that, you know — “I’d love a position,” etc., etc., etc.

                                    That was a game-changer. That was a game-changer. And so, you’ve got these, we call them, market makers. You’ve got these big organizations who say — like General Motors — “We’re not” — you know, it’s their own product, but “we are not going to sell combustion engines.” Well, think how the downstream is on that. Think about, “Oh, God, we’re going to have to have all these charging stations. We’re going to have to have all these new battery companies.” That’s cool, but think about the other stuff that’s going to be antiquated.

But there’s amazing things that are happening, where companies are really utilizing their — you know, Starbucks. And Starbucks changed the entire coffee farmer industry by, you know, determining that they were going to pay them a fair wage. And then, they communicated the heck out it. Starbucks is my favorite company (in terms of their) views of their employees. Their employees are their number-one stakeholder — one, two, three, four and five. (They’re) just brilliant, brilliant things they do.

Tom:                          When it starts at the top of the chain, at Walmart or Amazon or wherever, does it — do you see it rippling through the supply chain and influencing the policies of those companies that are within the chain?

Carol Cone:              Well, I don’t know about the policy. I think, certainly, it influences the products. And if — indeed, companies that wanted to sell at Walmart, they had to report on their carbon footprint. So, of course, it changed the policies, or they couldn’t sell there, or they got bad position on the shelf.

Tom:                          Back to the pandemic. This has been an overwhelming thing in our lives for more than a year now, and we’re really not out of the woods yet. And some are now saying — in fact, the New York Times has proclaimed on its front page — that remote work is here to stay. So, I’m just wondering: What kinds of challenges does this present to purpose-driven organizations?

Carol Cone:              I think it’s a tremendous opportunity, because (it’s about) standing for something besides just making widgets or being on a Zoom call all day.

For example, there’s virtual volunteering. And a major piece of research just came out of CECP, which (is the) Chief Executive for Corporate Purpose, called Value Volunteering. It’s going to be one of my podcasts; it’s going to air in about a month. And basically, volunteering is helping individuals stay connected to the company, even if it’s just, you know, on a Zoom screen, or we’ll eventually be able to do volunteering in our communities with, you know, with masks and then, ultimately, you know, without masks, in micro volunteering and large volunteering.

                                    So, purpose is going to be that golden thread that ties people to the company, I think, (and it) is more important than ever.

Tom:                          Carol, final question for you: What sort of world exists in the future in which purpose-driven businesses become the norm?

Carol Cone:              Hopefully, it’s not nirvana. Hopefully, it’s not a dream. Because companies will have their — they will be more efficient; they will more human; they will be more environmentally sensitive. They will make wicked-cool innovations that are going to be, you know, responding to social issues and environmental issues. And we will have greater solutions to the problems that confront us on a daily basis. And work will be more joyous. That is for sure.

Tom:                          So, do you think there’s a good chance we could be happier people?

Carol Cone:              I think we will be more fulfilled. I don’t think we’re going to be happy all the time, but I think that being satisfied and having greater fulfillment, I think that that’s going to be a great result from having a lot more purpose in all of our companies, both big and small, B-to-B, B-to-C, local, national and global.

Tom:                          I’ll take it. Carol Cone, founder of the consultancy, Carol Cone ON PURPOSE. Thank you so much, Carol. We appreciate your time.

Carol Cone:              I, it was joyful, it was great. And thank you so much.

Tom:                          I’m Tom Martin, and thank you for listening.