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Photo: iStock

Opinion | To bring real change, leaders need to look outside their office building

The world needs an ‘advanced’ leader who tries to address problems beyond her company

The theme of the World Economic Forum’s 50th Annual Meeting, which concluded last month in Davos, Switzerland, was shaping stakeholders for a cohesive and sustainable world. While there were many debates and discussions around the challenging state of global affairs, it was energizing to learn how some business leaders were harnessing the power of their organizations to solve complex challenges like climate change and technological disruption.

In her new book, Think Outside The Building: How Advanced Leaders Can Change The World One Small Innovation At A Time, Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter explains why the world demands a new kind of “advanced" business leader who makes conscious attempts to solve problems beyond her company. Prof. Kanter offers several arguments but three struck a chord with me.

First, as research institutions like Pew and trust scholar Rachel Botsman explain, there has been a massive degradation of public trust in big institutions. In fact, trust in big businesses is at an all-time low. Their credibility, legitimacy and motives are being questioned and people don’t believe they are interested in solving problems that adversely affect communities. If business leaders don’t regain the trust of their customers, they will lose significant market value in the years to come.

Second, it helps create a strong talent pool. By 2025, millennials will comprise 75% of the global workforce.

Future of work

According to PwC’s recent Workforce Of The Future survey, almost 90% of millennials today want to work with purpose-driven companies that are ethical and sensitive to the communities they serve. By trying to solve important social and environmental issues, business leaders can attract the brightest young leaders to join their organizations. This will create both economic and social value.

Third, gift of perspective. Often CEOs become so focused on performance metrics that their business loses sight of why it exists and what problem it is solving. In addition to missing major market-shaping trends, such an inward-looking approach reinforces existing biases and creates new ones.

Small wonder then businesses that become irrelevant are often those that try to solve the wrong problems, a direct result of being disconnected with society. Intersectionality created by combining internal expertise, sector-specific knowledge and external perspective gained from addressing social issues strengthens an organization’s problem-solving arsenal.

While the above points are addressed to business leaders, they are equally applicable to millennials and younger executives at work. Ignoring social challenges in our own backyard or thinking that we will address larger issues once we rise up the professional ladder is naïve. Habits, mental models and problem-solving tools are developed by sustained efforts and relentless experimentation. Millennials who want to lead organizations in the future should consider deepening their connect with social issues. It is not only the right thing to do but also a necessary leadership skill for the 21st century.

To get into the habit of looking outside the metaphorical box or building, one has to train to connect with individuals and communities that think differently, perhaps ones who don’t share our worldview. This is, of course, easier said than done. It is convenient to stay in our comfort zone but it comes at the cost of learning. We grow most by engaging with diversity of all kinds.

One of my mentors recently told me that we are an average of five people we share most of our time with. Most millennials spend more time with colleagues than with families and friends. That is why it is important to be part of multiple working groups in office and partner with them to do our bit to solve challenges that actually move the needle. We may not be able to resolve all systemic challenges immediately but concerted efforts to address them changes our perspective and arms us with unexplored insights that help us grow personally and professionally. This is over and above the sheer joy of feeling connected with a larger mission, something that transcends our day-to-day work. The need of the hour for all stakeholders, big and small, is to change perspective, build coalitions and see global challenges with a different lens, thereby augmenting both shareholder and stakeholder value.

Utkarsh Amitabh is founder of Network Capital, a global peer mentoring community and a WEF Global Shaper.

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