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Something is happening, and it affects us all. A global revolution is changing business and business is changing the world.” That was how cofounders Bill Taylor and Alan Webber introduced Fast Company to readers in November 1995. “A new generation is rewriting the rules of business,” they added, and they emblazoned these new tenets on the cover: Work Is Personal. Computing Is Social. Knowledge Is Power. Break the Rules.
Taylor and Webber’s manifesto proved prescient. But 25 years later, as society confronts a global pandemic, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and demands to end systemic racism (on top of climate change and growing income inequality), it’s time to rewrite the rules yet again. Some changes had begun before the existential crises of 2020—hourly wage hikes, pledges to lower carbon footprints—but they were largely reactive, and not adopted broadly enough to meet this moment. Taylor, who has gone on to write three books about leadership, recently said, “It’s hard to sustain a great company in a deeply troubled society, to build a healthy corporate culture in a world where so many people struggle with discrimination, lack of access to healthcare, and a planet that keeps getting sicker.”
We editors asked the Fast Company Impact Council—an invitation-only group of forward-thinking corporate and nonprofit leaders, CEOs, innovators, and founders—to help draft the new new rules of business. During a series of conversations this past summer, they aided us in developing a prescription for the next 25 years, and beyond. (Excerpts of these roundtables may be found on fastcompany.com.)
Bring democracy to work
When the spread of COVID-19 forced many employees to work from home, all illusions about the value of hierarchical leadership “blew up,” says Aaron Levie, cofounder and CEO of enterprise tech company Box. “In fact, it’s actually an anchor and a tax on how we work.” But a flatter organization isn’t just about working faster or cutting out expensive layers of middle management—it is essential to creating fairer and more inclusive workplaces and corporate cultures. Leaders should voluntarily share data about pay and diversity metrics, encourage employees to speak up when they see wrongdoing, and find ways to extend benefits and opportunities to all employees.
As companies respond to employees’ calls for racial justice, sparked by the police killings of George Floyd and other unarmed Black citizens, leaders need “to listen, be empathetic, and then act,” says Tony Prophet, chief equality and recruiting officer at Salesforce. “It begins with listening to the community that’s affected.” Leighanne Levensaler, EVP of corporate strategy at Workday, says this means inspecting every aspect of hiring and promotion, noting that companies undergo financial and compliance audits all the time, “to make sure there’s fairness in the process.”
But as companies rush to amplify previously marginalized voices, they must guard against tokenization, says Samantha Skey, CEO of She Media, or crushing the originality of fresh perspectives, says Gigi Pritzker, of entertainment company MWM. And Arianna Huffington adds that democratization needs to extend to workers at all levels, noting that her behavioral health company, Thrive Global, is now working with Walmart to provide well-being tools to the retailer’s 2.2 million employees.
Democracy in work isn’t merely a new rule of business. It can be a business model. Hello Sunshine, Reese Witherspoon’s media company, was launched four years ago to produce female-centric content long overlooked by Hollywood. “In this moment we’re . . . doubling and tripling down on our mission,” says CEO Sarah Harden.
Invest in community
Companies have no choice but to rethink the way they engage and invest in the communities they operate in. Not only has philanthropy become “hyperlocal,” says Kara Medoff Barnett, executive director of American Ballet Theatre, but it is increasingly embedded in business. Tory Burch, creative director of her eponymous lifestyle brand, says putting the president of the Tory Burch Foundation on the corporate operating board was “pivotal” for aligning company and philanthropic goals. Scott Harrison, founder and CEO of Charity: water, cites Patagonia’s 1% for the Planet initiative (which commits 1% of sales to environmental causes) for ensuring that giving doesn’t cease altogether in downturns. Morgan Stanley last year underwrote a $1 billion green bond for PepsiCo. “We are focused on how we can leverage finance” to advance a sustainability agenda, says Audrey Choi, the financial services company’s chief marketing and sustainability officer. Justin Moore, executive director of the New York City Public Design Commission, calls on companies, nonprofits, governments, and grassroots organizations to “allow for new and complete ways of caring for our communities and our public spaces.”
Define your purpose
“Purpose is seen as a massive departure from capitalism, which I don’t think it is at all,” says Frank Cooper, global chief marketing officer of giant asset manager BlackRock. But many companies that have pronounced themselves “purpose driven,” he says, don’t actually know what their purpose is—they confuse it with mission. The answer can emerge through conversations not just about sustainability and governance practices but also business strategy. Newer businesses have baked purpose into their business plan. “Being good stewards of the world and leaving the place a little better than we found it is a sustainable competitive advantage,” says Stuart Landesberg, cofounder of natural products company Grove Collaborative. Profits and purpose can coexist. “The more profit we make, the more social impact we can have,” says Jonathan Neman, cofounder and CEO of Sweetgreen.
Perhaps no word is at more risk of devolving into corporate-speak than authentic, and yet the concept behind it is more crucial than ever. For leaders there seems to be no greater virtue; for brands, no higher aspiration. As today’s crises are prompting a more candid, raw dialogue among colleagues, “we’re at a point where we, as leaders, are being asked to open up and share our own hearts,” says Jeff Titterton, chief marketing officer of Zendesk. “Empathy is a nonnegotiable leadership skill,” adds Alicia Tillman, global chief marketing officer of SAP. Jolie Hunt, founder of communications agency Hunt & Gather, stresses that honest messaging requires thoughtful consideration. “You can’t stand for something if you don’t stand for something.”
Curiosity is currency
For companies trying to stay ahead of business and social trends, it’s imperative to question assumptions. “Our values are curiosity, courageousness, and incisiveness on a bedrock of integrity, and the one I personally picked is curiosity,” says Genpact CEO Tiger Tyagarajan. For individuals, inquisitiveness may be what keeps their jobs from being automated or displaced by artificial intelligence. “That which can be digitized will be, but [machines] cannot replace the things that require creativity and humanity and curiosity,” says Gretchen Buhlig, CEO of the ASU Foundation. Teachers, schools, and parents, meanwhile, will have to “shift from education to learning,” says Steven Wolfe Pereira, cofounder and CEO of edtech company Encantos, and embrace “a lifelong-learning mindset.”
Change is constant
Companies say they embrace change, but all too often they are really just reacting to external forces. “What if what we’re trying to create is not some new stasis, but organizations that are capable of rapidly changing as conditions require?” says Barbara Humpton, CEO of Siemens USA. Such organizations, she says, will “gain from disruption rather than being broken by it.” For many leaders, creating nimble organizations comes down to people: “Change is not the ‘what’ but the ‘who,’ ” says Rob Katz, chairman and CEO of Vail Resorts. “Who are the people who can change, who have that ability to let go of something they’ve been doing a long time?”
Will these new rules of business be as prophetic as the ones Fast Company put forth in 1995? We hope so. But as Bill Taylor and Alan Webber would caution (“Break the Rules”), even they will soon need rewriting. In these fast-moving and uncertain times, the only thing any business can prepare for is change.
Read more insights on the New New Rules of Business from Fast Company’s Impact Council members here: