Reflections for New Business Leaders: Opportunity and Responsibility

By May 20, 2016Blog

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With the end-of-the year rush, graduation celebrations and goodbyes now behind us, we are setting forth on the exciting but uncertain next phase of our lives. We have been offered an incredible privilege to re-enter the workforce with brand new opportunities; one that also comes with tremendous responsibility as future business leaders.

We are beginning this next phase of our careers and lives in an incredibly complex world. Here in the U.S., political polarization has created a widening gap between conservative and liberal thinkers, limiting productive dialogue and shared purpose. Our sense of security is questioned as violent acts target people while doing everyday activities, like going to work or enjoying an evening out. Our natural environment – the resources we depend upon and the air we breathe – is at risk due to the strain we have placed on it through human activity.

We have discussed and even experienced many of these challenges here at UM through classes, action-based learning and leadership development opportunities. We have been guided by our talented peers, faculty, staff, alumni, visitors and the broader campus network. We have been pushed in classes that challenge us and by perspectives that question our outlook on the world. We are different people walking out UM’s doors than we were walking in.

Of course, this is only the beginning, though. What we have prepared for over the past two or three years we must now actually do! And the expectations of business have only expanded. Yesterday’s commitment to maximizing shareholder value is today’s commitment to the “triple bottom line:” not only profit, but also the people and planet impacted by our business choices. The hard reality is that we cannot continue on the path we are currently on, and also expect ongoing and unlimited growth along with a healthy and productive future.

In our lifetime, we have been fortunate to operate in a world with relatively minimal resource scarcity. If water is low here, we pipe it in from there. If a mineral stock is short, we simply dig deeper. When labor becomes expensive, we relocate to where it costs less. But this is not, or unfortunately cannot be, the reality of the future. In the future, there will not be a new place to shift production or a new natural resource stock to tap. So we have to act today, as business leaders, to make some changes to ensure our collective future.

But, isn’t this something we can task our “sustainability” or “CSR” departments with doing? After all, that’s what us Erbers are for, right? None of us is responsible for solving these issues alone, but each of us is responsible for doing something. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” So, what role do you see business playing in addressing these challenges, and how will you, and we, be a part of this?

The truth is that no one here can solve climate change or global human rights abuses alone, but together we represent an incredible potential, re-entering the work force with the belief that we can do things differently, and maybe even better. Together we will establish the expectations and norms around what business is and is not. So whether or not you have “sustainability” in your job title and whether you work for a small social enterprise or large corporation, we – as business leaders – will play a crucial role in defining how the business world handles the environmental and social challenges before us. In fact, I believe that we need responsible leadership in traditional business functions – Operations, Finance, Marketing – even more than we need another social enterprise.

What do I mean by responsible leadership? As a supply chain manager, you get to know the conditions and concerns of the workers who produce and transport your company’s products. As a strategy manager, you encourage diversity and creativity of thought so that employees with innovative solutions are heard and supported. As a financial analyst, you find new ways to consider non-financial impacts, like human rights and carbon emissions, when assessing a new project. Of course none of these actions alone will reverse the collective impact of our actions to date, but they will build awareness, interest and compassion, which together ultimately serve as the foundation for meaningful progress.

Our world is undoubtedly complex, and our challenges intimidating. Perhaps one place to start, then, is with what we care most about and hope most passionately for in the world around us. Do you hope for a more peaceful future? A more equitable distribution of opportunity? A healthier natural environment? Whatever your hope is for the world around you, how will you use business to make it a reality?

As we step forward into our new roles as global business leaders, let us think about the contributions we can each make to ensure that business is used as a force for good. Let us build upon the lessons we learned on and off this campus about positive leadership and impact, and show that UM really does develop leaders who make a positive difference in the world.

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