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What Good can Positive Business Accomplish in the World?

written by Giselle Nicholson 10 June 2014
Bottom Lines

Giselle Nicholson Timmerman, MAPP '06, has over nine years of experience working as a strategy consultant and leadership coach in the Americas, Europe, and Middle East. Giselle has pioneered the application of positive psychology to strategy, leadership, and organizations. She has seen the field develop firsthand and is fortunate to collaborate with the very best practitioners in the world via her collaborative consultant network, Positive Work. Giselle serves as President-elect of the Work Division for the International Positive Psychology Association. Full bio. Giselle's articles are here.

What good can positive business accomplish in the world? That question compelled numerous conversations at the Positive Business Conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan from May 15 to May 17. All the world was invited to look in during the streaming video windows provided by the conference organizers.

Back in 2007, I wrote an article that I titled What Good is Business? Positive Psychology & Social Entrepreneurship about a conference whose focus was on the triple bottom line. In 2010, I wrote another article about the Center for Innovation and Humanity Conference, a day of dialogue centered on positive social change through ethical innovation. Both of those occasions showed that the ability of positive psychology to drive action comes alive at the intersection of disciplines.

My passion and work lies at the vertex of positive psychology, business, and social innovation. You can bet that I’m always on the hunt for relevant hubs for discourse, and I found another one in the Positive Business conference.

Over the years, I’ve attended several conferences that converge with my vertex:

This graph is an illustrative sketch of my opinion of who tends to attend these conferences and for what purpose. The bubble size represents relative number of conference attendees. The horizontal axis represents the question, “Business to benefit whom? Those at the top of the financial pyramid or the poor at the bottom of the pyramid?” Essentially, when I hear about innovative business models that aim to do more good in the world, I ask, “Who benefits?” Everyone is of good merit, but I tend to gravitate towards innovative ways to create positive social and psychological impact in lesser served populations.

Who goes?  What for?

Who goes? What for?

The Positive Business conference was unique in that it had a good attendee mix (professionals, academics, students) and addressed themes and solutions for beneficiaries at both the top and bottom of the pyramid. To recap, here are some of my key takeaways from the Positive Business Conference.

Bringing Change Agents Together

Many of us are swimming in the same bowl but don’t realize it. I’ve observed slight overlap in speakers and attendees at many of these conferences, but not enough. Whether you call it conscious capitalism, shared value, creative capitalism, restorative enterprise, social entrepreneurship, or “beyond lazy thinking,” the leaders of these camps share a similar mindset towards organizations as a source for good.

This conference organized an interesting portfolio of speakers from a range of organizations, including Ford, Humana, Procter and Gamble, Interface, McKinsey, Cascade Engineering, Motley Fool, Zingerman’s, sweetriot, The Aspen Institute, and Youth For Understanding. The diversity and high level leadership of speakers was critical for effectively conveying the why, what, and how of positive business.

Business schools are developing social change agents. Students previously attracted to master’s programs in social work, public policy, and nonprofit management are making inroads at select business schools that (dare I say) have an enlightened view as to what positive business is capable of achieving. With 25% of undergrads pursuing business degrees, schools have to educate students on the complexities of making high-quality decisions. Students need to understand that businesses do good things or bad things, from one decision to the next.

The Ross School of Business put a stake in the ground by refining its mission with the commitment to “develop leaders who make a positive difference in the world.” Fred Keller, CEO of Cascade Engineering, matter-of-factly said it best: “Like no other segment in society, business leaders have choices… You’ve got to figure out how to make that good thing to do good for business… There’s no limit on the amount of good we can do.”

Positive Practices Are Not Enough for Positive Business.

Dean Alison Davis-Blake defines positive businesses as ones that create economic value, are great places to work, and are good neighbors.

Unfortunately, I think some organizations are tempted to cherry pick and over-value specific positive practices, making extrapolations that they are therefore positive businesses.

Just like any good corporate social responsibility (CSR) effort, unless positive practices are baked into the organization’s strategy and inform decision-making at all levels of the organization, it’s like a different version of greenwashing, deceptive advertising that creates an undeserved public view that the company’s products are environmentally friendly. As a positive psychology practitioner, I am very sensitive to rubber-stamping and over-simplification of what it takes to truly become a positive business. Organizations such as Cascade Engineering, Interface, and Zingerman’s shared stories of long, circuitous journeys to becoming the positive organizations they are today.

Courageously Busting Assumptions

Positive leaders are courageous assumption busters. This learning is as true for the conference speakers as it is for many attendees I met.

Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s Chief Futurist and a recognized creative, explained that being a futurist is really about uncovering underlying assumptions about our plans for the future and challenging the status quo.

Dave Mayer gave a workshop on leading with values. He hammered home the idea that a leader’s courage and effectiveness stems from living according to values and continuously learning ways to strengthen the connection between values and behavior.

Bob Quinn’s workshop on positive leadership dove into this further by explaining that internally-directed leaders ask value-clarifying questions of themselves and others. Where’s my moral compass? Where’s my true north? These insights become invaluable when “calling the big plays” in life, the decisions where we often don’t have a lot of data to fall back on. Furthermore, positive leaders bust past limiting (or false) beliefs by learning and co-creating with their teams to tackle problems. This practice builds organizational capacity and unlocks resources previously unseen.

The Importance of Long-term Vision

Long-term vision (or purpose) drives smarter short-term decisions. Most leaders compete with everyday tensions to deliver shareholder value and maximize their effectiveness. Add this to the reality that positive change is not usually urgent. What makes positive leaders different is that they manage these tensions by tethering everyday efforts to a larger purpose. Humana’s human resources VP, Tim State, describes their larger purpose as using communities to move the needle on well-being, starting with their 54,000 employees.

“Purpose” was a pervasive word used at the conference, with many demonstrating that commitment to a specific purpose helps them push through conflict and stay focused on the long-term results they want to create.

The Aspen Institute’s Executive Director, Judith Samuelson, shared remarkable examples of companies able to align their bold vision with strategy, and then operationalize it.

I believe Motley Fool’s Tom Gardner made the most compelling case for setting a long-term time horizon. Not only does he practice this within his company for financial investments and focusing on stakeholder loyalty, but he also claims that conscious capitalism is the best long-term economic opportunity businesses have.

Impact on the Bottom Line

Positive business practices have a real impact on the bottom line. I’ve been long convinced of what I call “the positive bottom line,” but I appreciated the variety of ways in which speakers at the conference conveyed this. Here are a few snippets:

  • Bob Quinn sees time and time again that increased positivity of relationships within organizations makes profits go up.
  • sweetriot’s Sarah Endline practices open book management as a way to empower employees to get smart on cost drivers and improve their cost-benefit ratio.
  • Procter and Gamble’s Chief Customer Officer, Bob Fregolle, made a strong business case for creating positive business relationships for joint value creation and mutual achievement of shared performance measures.
  • Kim Cameron’s research and persuasive teaching style explained that positive, virtuous practices account for 20-30% of the variance in organizational outcomes.

Summing Up

Without a doubt, the Positive Business conference is one I’ll be returning to. The quality and accessibility of speakers was high, the content was thought-provoking, and my fellow participants were highly engaging. Not to mention the fact that we were pampered with exceptional musical entertainment and delicious meals. The conference truly made the case for and pushed the thinking in how we must make positive business practices the norm rather than the exception.

Please feel free to contact me should you be interested in more details or are curious about any of the other conferences I’ve attended.

Highlights and Media Coverage of the 2014 Positive Business Conference, including plans to make this an annual event. Mark your calendars to watch for it next spring.

Cameron, K. & Spreitzer, G. (2011). The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Oxford University Press.

Cameron, K. (2008, 2012). Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance. Edition 2. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Dutton, J. E. & Spreitzer, G. (2014, June 2). How to Be a Positive Leader: Small Actions, Big Impact. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

Quinn, R. (2004). Building the bridge as you walk on it: A guide for leading change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Cherry picking courtesy of woodleywonderworks
Bottom lines courtesy of tanakawho

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Scott Crabtree 10 June 2014 - 6:28 pm

For those of use who couldn’t be there, this is a really helpful summary Giselle. Thanks for the awesome bubble chart and useful summary. I’m inclined to try to make it next time! Hope to see you there…

Scott Crabtree, Chief Happiness Officer, http://www.HappyBrainScience.com

Giselle 11 June 2014 - 3:10 pm

Thanks, Scott. I believe they’re going to try and schedule the next conference just before IPPA Congress 2015, so you may have the opportunity to hit up both.

Look forward to seeing you there!

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 11 June 2014 - 9:05 pm

How I wish I’d been there! Thank you for the updates! Looking forward to hearing more when we next see each other!

Seph Fontane Pennock (@PosPsyCourses) 13 June 2014 - 4:56 am

Hi there Giselle,

Thanks a lot for writing this great summary. It’s really helpful 🙂

Will you also be attending the Canadian Conference on Positive Psychology (http://www.positivepsychologycanada.com/conference2014) or the European Conference on Positive Psychology (http://www.ecpp2014.nl/) this summer?


Margaret Greenberg 13 June 2014 - 2:11 pm

You are a gifted writer Giselle — I ALMOST felt like I was there after reading your article. Thank you for a wonderful summary and I hope to attend next year.

giselle 14 June 2014 - 2:48 am

Lisa and Margaret,
Glad you enjoyed the article — it’s really written for practitioners like you two. Look forward to catching up with both of you at the next one, if not before!


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