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Lead With Your Authentic Values

(October 2007) posted on Sat Oct 20, 2007

Increasingly vocal customers, shareholders, and employees will hold you to account.

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By Andrea Southcott

It seems you can't open a newspaper or magazine these days without seeing a company or brand showcasing its 'green strategy.' In the last few years, we've seen environmental and social strategies move from an annual report footnote to a headline in how companies promote themselves and their products. That's a very positive thing-if it's authentic.

Creating real social or environmental change makes you feel good. It can also be good business, but only if it's true to your business or your brand. With increasingly vocal shareholders, customers and employees holding you to account, the path taken has to be well thought out and backed up by authentic action. Authenticity is becoming an increasingly critical currency in a world where consumer feedback has the power to validate or critique a business's actions.

Walking the walk
There are many great examples of businesses living their values. These companies start with the question, 'What is the change we want to see in the world?' versus 'What is the change people want to see us talking about so that they buy more of our product?' The in-going thinking is values-based first, profit-based second, and, interestingly, that's often how the biggest returns come. People respect and support it when a company stands for its beliefs. Under GE's 'green is green' strategy, the company invested $90 million of its $3.7 billion R&D budget on green projects and 'green' sales rose from $6 billion in 2004 to $12 billion in 2006. While some critique GE, there is no arguing that they are moving toward 'greener' values.

There also are those companies working through the process of defining their Corporate Social Responsibility values. Often, in the initial stages, it doesn't quite feel like a natural fit. For instance, Kellogg recently announced that it was going to make cereals and snacks marketed to children more nutritious and stop advertising its sugary cereals to kids. Kellogg avoided facing a lawsuit threatened by groups worried about childhood obesity. This could be viewed as expedient behavior, but as the commitment and actions take hold, customers, shareholders, and staff will become increasingly supportive, ideas will start to become additive, and the strategy will become self-sustaining.