‘Cash is king, but care is queen’: Business executives share how impact leadership transforms their workplace

Helle Bank Jorgensen, founder and CEO of Competent Boards, says "cash is king, but care is queen."
Erik Meadows/Fortune

Impact leadership can sound like an ambiguous term to the average worker, and it even holds different meanings to leaders themselves. At a roundtable discussion at Fortune’s Impact Initiative, sustainable business leaders and executives debated what impact leadership mean and how it’s transformed their workplace.

Sometimes the way to gauge impact leadership is to ask if leaders are leading us to where we want to go or to the future we want, said Helle Bank Jorgensen, the founder and CEO of Competent Boards. Meanwhile, Petco Health and Wellness’ chief strategy officer, Soumik Chatterjee, said impact leadership comes down to two things for him—conviction and focus. 

“A leader has to have conviction on what your values are, and how you deliver results against your values, and sometimes trading off against your standard financial metrics,” he said. “And leaders that successfully navigate that over the long haul become critical.”

He explains that a leader has to navigate different constituents, from investors to customers to employees, which requires a sense of focus and clarity in delivering what’s next for the company and why you’re making those particular choices as its leader. 

But what seems to be at the center of impact leadership is the overall goal of contributing to the greater good. And that can be your workforce, the people you want to hire, the customers you serve, or the communities you operate in, said Jon Banner, McDonald’s Corporation’s executive vice president and global chief impact officer. 

“They all are expecting something and over the long term, you have to deliver on those various demands, and set some sort of leadership so that you have the ability to serve your customers,” he added. 

The next gen of impact leaders

As for the next generation of impact leaders, what’s needed has shifted over the last few years, said Clarke Murphy, Russell Reynolds’ CEO. In the past, there was more of a focus on marketing and communications, he explained. But the pandemic’s disruptions to supply chains and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have created a need for “deep operational” experience.

But Bank Jorgensen felt impact leaders should lean into their soft skills, referencing a saying she developed as a leader during the pandemic—“cash is king, but care is queen.”

“So if we don’t care, if we don’t care about our suppliers, if we don’t care about our employees, if we don’t care about all of our stakeholders, [why] should they care about us?” she asked. 

Caring can mean listening, understanding, and being empathetic. “Leaders have to be able to understand where somebody’s coming from, because unless you understand that, you’re not going to be able to point the organization in the right direction,” Banner said. 

Being an impactful leader also requires a commitment to transparency—“you really can’t advocate for change unless you’re willing to sort of be honest about what you’re doing and the progress you’re making,” he added. 

But with a faltering economy that’s prompting several companies to make cuts, there’s a question on how that will affect initiatives addressing ESG (environmental, social, and governance) concerns.

“Companies that have gone through hard times that have cut back on marketing, cut back on taking care of people—and they pay the price, they pay the price over the long term,” Chatterjee said. “So having the resilience and the focus on all of ESG topics to continue on the long term becomes very much important to continue making progress.”

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