The purpose of business is to address real human needs—that’s something I learnt as a young boy in rural Norway, welding sheep bells, then selling them to farmers. By providing the farmers with a way to keep track of their sheep, I could buy myself new football boots and put a little away to fund my future education. It taught me that business can make money and improve people’s lives.
Tata Sons Ltd and the Aditya Birla Group, two of the great pioneers of Indian business, were founded on a similar idea— that capital should be invested in a way that it delivers commercial returns and benefits the people.
In my mind, this approach to business and society is more important today than ever.
India is at a truly historic moment. It’s now home to the world’s largest population under the age of 30 and an abundance of talent, knowledge, technology and capital. And it has made considerable progress; for example, child mortality is at the lowest level we have ever seen.
Yet, there are even greater opportunities to invest India’s resources in a way that it achieves the maximum human return on investment.
Take the empowerment of women. At just 27%, the proportion of India’s women participating in its workforce is less than half that of China or Brazil. How are we going to ensure that all of India’s women reach their full potential?
The answer is leadership.
In my work, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with some remarkable leaders— leaders who are transforming their businesses and society at large. Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman has challenged business leaders to define themselves by the problems they solve; Mastercard Inc.’s CEO Ajay Banga says the highest form of leadership is pursuing what is in your best interest and the interest of others.
To explore support for this new way of doing business, Xynteo, an Oslo-based consulting company with a focus on sustainable growth, asked a group of emerging business leaders the extent to which they are aware and committed to such an approach.
The findings are extremely encouraging: a new generation of Indian business leaders is emerging. They are transparent about their vision. They are engaging with the outside world to identify new opportunities beyond their core businesses. They are combining forces across industries and sectors to unlock new commercial value.
These emerging leaders are not afraid of doing business differently. They are “Leading Out”.
The study shows one in five emerging Indian business leaders sees these behaviours as integral to their success.
Right now there are some great companies already driving this new leadership movement in India and beyond.
Take the Taj Group of Hotels, which is training underprivileged women to take on new kinds of roles in the hospitality sector, thus creating equal opportunities in that industry. Through this initiative, the hospitality industry is realizing new opportunities for a diversified workforce and contributing to the empowerment of India’s women.
Like Taj, more and more Indian companies are actively seeking commercial opportunity through addressing societal and environmental challenges. And with a third (31%) of emerging Indian leaders seeing that it is possible to make money this way, this is more than corporate social responsibility.
This is Leading Out.
Osvald Bjelland is chairman and CEO of Xynteo.
A new generation of Indian business leaders is busy changing the widely-held perception that business by its very nature is antithetical to societal needs. Just how widespread is this new thinking and how deep is the transformation? For an answer, Mint partnered with Oslo-based consulting firm Xynteo, whose path-breaking study ‘Leading Out’ gives empirical evidence of this new agenda especially among future enterprise leaders of India’s top companies. Beyond the numbers what it tells us is that the passivity of corporate social responsibility (CSR), with its ring of self-righteousness, is giving way to the more positive intent captured by the phrase corporate social opportunity. Significantly, as Xynteo’s research shows, for those companies which have integrated these sustainability goals with the core of their businesses, the commercial returns have been well worth the efforts. That’s the real marker for our future because regardless of which end of the pyramid we are in, there are some needs that are universal.