May 13, 2009

If there are lessons to be learned from the current economic crisis—and there are many—it is clear that chasing after short-term profits is an unsustainable business strategy. The quick dollar or headline-grabbing deal may offer an immediate financial prize, but those rewards turn too sour, too quickly, for too many.

To be sure, during times like these, I understand the challenge of looking beyond the next few quarters. While the economic downturn may be showing signs of deceleration, a full recovery is still some way off. Business leaders must continue to take active steps to ensure the survival of their companies—now.

However, as we imagine ourselves on the other side of this crisis, we have an opportunity to reexamine the actions that got us here in the first place. We have a chance to rethink the meaning of business success. And as we do so, I would like to suggest that “social impact” should join the list of criteria for judging our performance.

For at least the past decade, corporate America has talked about the notion of social responsibility. Many companies have run with this idea—implementing a range of related initiatives, from community service events to recycling programs to fair-trade purchasing policies. Too often, however, these have been add-on or one-off efforts that offer a bit of gloss to marketing campaigns but do not reflect a deeper, fundamental change in the relationship between business and society.

Now is a time to broaden and deepen our view...to make a permanent place for values in our business activities. In fact, true corporate sustainability may ultimately depend on our own willingness to look beyond the demands of our immediate stakeholders and take into account the needs of our broader community and our environment. By asking “What will this do for us?” rather than “What will this do for me?” we can bring our business objectives closer to those who are affected by our decisions, reenergize the people upon whom we depend for success and create a new, lasting cycle of growth and stability.

This article contains material of general interest and should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. Under applicable rules of professional conduct, this content may be regarded as attorney advertising.