You’re the chief executive of a company and you’re trying to decide how to inject a little more purpose into your company. What do you do? How do you decide which issues to engage with? And how do you navigate your own corporate corridors to get there?
Top executives from the food, finance, insurance, and health industries convened at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif., on Monday to discuss just that. Given their varied industries, the issues each executive chose to tackle varied considerably, but in a panel discussion moderated by Fortune senior writer Beth Kowitt, they discovered that their considerations and tactics were surprisingly similar.
“There’s an expectation that CEOs take a stand and get involved,” said Anthem CEO Gail Boudreaux to a ballroom full of executives, adding that she took a “hard look” at her company’s mission, vision, and values before choosing to engage with certain social issues. For example, Anthem’s home state, Indiana, is one of a small handful of U.S. states without laws for hate crimes on the books. After a synagogue was painted with graffiti using hate speech, Boudreaux took a stand alongside other CEOs and advocated to make a change. “One, it aligns with our values for inclusion and diversity, and two, it helps us recruit employees,” she said.
Anthem wasn’t the only company that started with its core beliefs. Michele Buck, president and CEO of the Hershey Co., said company founder Milton Hershey was long a proponent of “doing well by doing good,” providing housing, medical treatment, and its now-famous amusement park for his company’s workers. The Milton Hershey School, a cost-free, private, co-residential school and home for children from lower income families, is an especially notable highlight. “All of our employee base takes great pride in that,” Buck said. “It’s that guiding light off of which everything feeds.” So is Hershey’s newer Heartwarming Project, designed to use the company’s signature snacks to connect people. “People feel pulled apart today and we know that our brands bring them together,” Buck said.
Often, an opportunity presents itself. For financial services firm Charles Schwab, the poor financial health of the average American today—57% of them are “financially unhealthy,” said EVP Terri Kallsen—made it easy for the company to engage with financial wellbeing much like a health company might focus on physical wellbeing. “We’ve got a pretty big crisis out there, and Chuck wants to be a part of that” and help fix it, Kallsen said of both the company and its namesake founder and chairman, now 81 years old. “Especially women,” she added, noting that they lack financial support even though many are the primary financial decision-makers in their household.
Identifying a corporate purpose starts with employee and customer sentiment, the executives agreed. “As a leader, you have to find ways to connect the people you’re serving,” Boudreaux said.
Deanna Mulligan, president and CEO of Guardian Life Insurance, put it another way. “Unless employees feel they’re given permission to live it, they’re just words,” she said. Similarly, “We’re not afraid to take a stand on things that impact our customers.”
The executives agreed that they weren’t afraid to act without permission. “We don’t need sign-offs from the board to do these things,” Buck said, “but these are now topics that are in the boardroom.” Indeed, corporate boards of directors are more frequently asking executives what the company is doing about a given issue, rather than the other way around. The important thing, the executives agreed, is that the board and CEO are in regular conversation about it.
“You’re much more credible saying something’s your mission,” Mulligan said, “when you’re out there doing it.”
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