Businesses are powerful platforms. Over 160 million people are employed by US businesses. The things that happen inside these businesses, the cultures that are created, and the way associates, clients and customers are treated influence more than just the bottom line.
The platforms conferred on business leaders empower them to promote a message, start a conversation, create a culture, or focus resources on important social causes. Often the focus is on what is good for the business and the broader community.
When used effectively, business platforms can be a powerful force for driving positive societal change. Effective utilization requires strong moral purpose; bold, powerful messaging; and the willingness to tackle controversial problems, which can lead to long-term systemic change and business success.
Absent or irresponsible use of a business platform can have long-reaching effects as well. An example of irresponsible use of power is the historical practice of banking “redlining.” In this practice, communities of color were systematically underinvested in, the result of which has been a lack of generational wealth creation in marginalized communities. The effects of redlining continue to echo loudly today.
I was working at UMB when I first understood the power of using business platforms for social good. At first, I assumed my platform was just a mechanism to raise money for organizations, nothing more. I chaired many events, made lots of calls to other business leaders asking for resources, wrote checks, and breathed a sigh of relief when we exceeded our fundraising goals. I made my contribution by raising funds and moving on from one fundraising endeavor to another. I didn’t appreciate that there was anything else I was accountable to do.
Over time, I came to realize that platforms require constant attention and activation to remain vital resources for advancing the common good. These platforms are destined to be underutilized if they are solely about fundraising and money or self-serving messages.
Corporate and community leadership requires full-contact engagement, emanating from many different sides and angles. This includes listening, fundraising, advocacy, community engagement, championing causes, giving a voice, and even aligning brands when appropriate. The full mobilization of people, finances, and resources must come together persistently in common cause.
One day, Bernard Franklin walked into my office in Kansas City. Bernard was the relatively new president of Junior Achievement of Middle America (JAMA). UMB had been a partner of JAMA for some time, providing direct funding and hosting an annual bowl-a-thon fundraiser. While Bernard was grateful for UMB’s past financial support, money was not his focus on this visit.
Bernard wanted to discuss how we could create a deeper partnership with more direct person-to-person engagement, one that would be of mutual benefit to the people of both organizations. He sought a partnership in which UMB associates could actively participate in the effort beyond just throwing bowling balls at pins once a year. We needed to align the two organization’s brands, missions and people.
I asked K. C. Mathews, UMB Bank’s Chief Investment Officer, to lead the effort. K. C. went to work and engaged the entire Kansas City UMB workforce. Our associates responded with enthusiasm, not because anyone told them they needed to but because they were part of a culture of giving and caring. Our associates felt the responsibility to engage. Their participation was a manifestation of UMB’s solid commitment to always “do the right thing” for its community.
We also placed dozens of associates in classrooms, teaching the principles of business and free enterprise to students across the region.
I have learned many lessons over my thirty-five years of leading business and community organizations. One of the most important is that those in positions of leadership and authority have a voice. They have the obligation to speak up and speak out on behalf of those who can’t do so for themselves. With leadership comes great responsibility to speak out when injustice occurs, when truth has been squelched, or when a simple misunderstanding might lead to unnecessary conflict. Leaders must engage more with those with whom they disagree. They must embrace the notion of listening to others and seeking to understand before taking action.
Recently, I received an email from Bernard. Since his days at JAMA, Bernard has been a leader in higher education and, coincidentally, became a 2022 Harvard ALI Fellow. His email touched a chord when he wrote the following:
“Your people [UMB] were always there in full force, fully engaged and fully present. I asked some of the loan officers and other leadership about the UMB cultural environment . . . they said you were building a culture of involvement not just with dollars to the community but with the bank employees’ presence and commitment. This is a reflection of your leadership and your commitment to serving every diverse Kansas City community. The Latino and African-American communities were so grateful for the support and the assistance UMB provided the community. All we had to do was call and ask, and the rest was done. There is still lots to be done, but you helped to create grocery stores, expand housing projects, etc.”
While Bernard gives me way too much credit, his statement is a testimony to the leadership platform UMB, the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, and many other business and civic organizations used to create a culture of positive change and engagement, the effects of which will be felt by individuals for years to come in that wonderful Midwestern city.
In today’s digitally-led world, genuine, authentic, face-to-face, and mutually beneficial relationships remain the cornerstone of human thriving. Real understanding and reconciliation can only begin through direct human engagement with those who differ from us. Do not be tricked into believing that money is the answer or that engaging with others virtually is an adequate substitute for face-to-face contact or relationships. The person-to-person approach is a necessary ingredient to transform this world into a better place.
–Excerpt from Taking Stock: 10 Life and Leadership Principles from My Seat at the Table. Available on Amazon.com