- The book explores how the corporate world is changing in response to the social and environmental challenges of the 21st century and argues for a new vision of capitalism that balances the interests of multiple stakeholders, including employees, customers, communities, and the planet.
- The book shows how some of the most influential CEOs in America have embraced stakeholder capitalism and how it works in practice by focusing on four key issues: climate change, diversity and inclusion, inequality and opportunity, and corporate governance.
- The book discusses the challenges and opportunities that stakeholder capitalism faces in the coming years and offers some recommendations for CEOs, investors, policymakers, and citizens who want to support and advance stakeholder capitalism.
In this thoughtful book, Fortune Media CEO Alan Murray considers business leaders’ changing priorities. At the start of the 21st century, most executives adhered to economist Milton Friedman’s theory that broader social aims distort the market’s efficiency. They held that a leader’s only duty is to maximize shareholder profits. However, the 2008 financial crisis sparked a reevaluation. Now, more than half of American corporations’ value lies in “intangibles,” such as brands and intellectual property. Leaders tend to focus less on the bottom line than on having talented people, and many prioritize meaning and purpose along with – or even above – profits.
- In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, business leaders began to shift their focus from shareholders to stakeholders.
- The COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t a financial crisis; it was a stakeholder crisis.
- The pandemic gave the pharmaceutical industry an opportunity to redeem itself.
- Future-oriented corporate leaders understand that their employees are their principal stakeholders.
- Workforce diversity inspires innovation.
- Business can lead the response to climate change.
- CEOs can be activists – within limits.
- Today’s companies must embody meaning and purpose.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, business leaders began to shift their focus from shareholders to stakeholders.
As of the late 1990s, the Business Roundtable (BRT), a powerful association of CEOs, narrowly adhered to economist Milton Friedman’s vision of capitalism in which a business’s purpose is to generate profits for its owners, and the CEO’s goal is to maximize returns.30 This was not always the BRT’s consensus view, and it did not last. Earlier, in the early 1980s, the BRT’s vision of “corporate purpose” noted the give-and-take relationship between business and society. It further expressed some sense of corporate responsibility to society, including a call to provide employment, offer well-made “goods and services at fair prices,” and support the economy at large.
By 2018, this resonated once more. Business’s orientation toward stockholders again shifted away from Friedman – a shift triggered by the 2008 financial crisis. In the face of high unemployment, a housing slump, stagnant wages and other shocks affecting working Americans in the wake of the crisis, Friedman’s market fundamentalism came under new scrutiny. Commentators suggested that the BRT’s exclusive focus on shareholder returns encouraged a “short-term corporate mentality” that damaged the overall economy.
“By the 1990s, when Reaganomics had taken hold, much of that [societal] thinking had moved to the back burner, at least in corporate boardrooms and C-suites. Faced with activist investors, the companies were paying extra attention to pleasing their shareholders.”
The Business Roundtable decided to re-evaluate its traditional position under the leadership of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who developed a reputation as a visionary during the 2008 economic meltdown. In mid-2019, it formulated a very different “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation.” The new statement spelled out corporations’ commitments to their stakeholders, including bringing value to customers, treating suppliers well, being involved in the needs of employees’ local communities, creating shareholder value over the long term, and investing in and respecting employees. The BRT solidified the concept that corporations should act in a way that enables companies, communities and entire countries to grow and prosper.
Though the BRT’s reformulated statement was hardly groundbreaking, its focus on generating long-term value for all stakeholders has meaningful implications. For instance, a company can’t thrive over time if it doesn’t respect its employees or pay them fairly. A company also can’t flourish, long-term, if it has to operate in a conflict-ridden social and political context, or if climate change impedes its operations.
The COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t a financial crisis; it was a ‘stakeholder crisis’.
Even before COVID arrived in Europe and North America in January 2020, the consensus among global business leaders was clear: “Stakeholder capitalism” looked like the path forward. Then, by March 2020, authorities recognized the disease as a global pandemic. Travel bans and lockdowns ensued. The economic impact was immediate and huge. Unlike the 2008 recession, the pandemic wasn’t a financial crisis; rather, it was a stakeholder crisis, and it gave rise to specific stakeholder problems. For instance, the pandemic put employees at risk, and it underscored social inequalities, such as the growing divide in wealthy Western nations between those with a college education and those without.
“It might be argued that you don’t plan a revolution during a pandemic. But the stakeholder revolution was already happening, and the pandemic, by its very nature, propelled it forward.”
Indeed, the pandemic confirmed for many CEOs that the ideal time had come for the business community to step up and play a positive role in society, working in partnership with governments and health authorities to accelerate change. For instance, Hyatt Hotels, which was hit hard by the pandemic, was up-front with its employees about its need to make cutbacks. The company supplemented the government’s financial safety net and coordinated with other companies that were still hiring to seek new employment for laid-off Hyatt employees.
Over the course of the pandemic, many of the changes it sparked gained traction, such as companies’ increased focus on cultivating talent and adopting an “employee-first” attitude. In addition, the pandemic made it clear that global leaders had to improve international supply chains and – at least in the United States – business needed to provide pragmatic leadership in instances where political polarization was hampering the effectiveness of government efforts.
The pandemic gave the pharmaceutical industry an opportunity to redeem itself.
In a 2019 poll, Americans ranked pharmaceuticals as the nation’s most disliked industry. Numerous scandals drove this enmity. For instance, in 2015, Martin Shkreli, a former hedge fund manager and CEO of two pharmaceutical companies, obtained the manufacturing rights to Daraprim – a drug used by HIV-positive people who suffered an acute parasitic infection – and raised the price from $13.50 per dose to $750 per dose. Many saw Shkreli as the embodiment of the industry’s greed. After all, the US government exerted no control on the price or marketing of medications so, the thinking went, the blame for high prices lay entirely with pharmaceutical companies themselves, specifically with their leaders. In addition, some pharmaceutical companies promoted addictive painkillers, thus fueling the opioid crisis.
“COVID-19 provided an opportunity for redemption, and the leading companies seemed eager to take it. Suddenly, a purpose had been thrust upon them: defeating the virus.”
Normally, vaccines take many years to develop, but as COVID-19 swept the globe, officials in President Donald Trump’s administration and leaders of American drug companies discussed ways to accelerate the vaccine development timeline. Pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson all moved with unprecedented speed to get vaccines into clinical trials within months – without cutting corners. Because so much was at stake, pharma employees felt motivated to innovate and to work hard and fast.
Dealing with a crisis as all-encompassing as the COVID-19 pandemic demanded cooperation and competition. Pharmaceutical companies competed with one another as they rushed to develop vaccines and effective treatments, but they also shared data. The big question for stakeholder capitalism is whether this level of innovation and cooperation is tenable during more ordinary times. However, combating the world’s most urgent problems, such as climate change, may demand some form of “radical collaboration” between public and private interests.
Future-oriented corporate leaders understand that their employees are their principal stakeholders.
When corporate CEOs meet at the annual Fortune CEO Initiative conference to discuss the issues confronting their businesses, “worker reskilling and training” regularly top their list of concerns. In a world on the cusp of technological transformation, people who aren’t knowledge workers – for instance, many employees in factories, restaurants or hotels – are the most vulnerable to being displaced by new technological advances. The pandemic affected these workers more than others, partially because they could not work remotely given the nature of their jobs.
“Workers, both current and future, became the critical stakeholders of far-thinking companies. The workforce challenge became the most immediate and most urgent challenge of our times.”
Today’s workforce challenge has two main facets: Reinventing work for the post-pandemic era, and training people to adapt to upcoming job disruption. During the pandemic, many people worked from home. As the pandemic wound down, many remained interested in mixed or hybrid schedules or flextime. While most workers maintained their productivity while working from home, CEOs worried that having employees work remotely undermined the corporate culture and damaged their connections with their supervisors and with one another.
However, workers’ connectedness to their employers may ultimately depend on leaders’ abilities to provide “moral leadership” – a commitment to foster hope and inspiration; a willingness to extend patience, flexibility and a safe space to air grievances; and a resolve to pursue purpose and do the right thing. The pandemic accelerated certain technological developments, like automation, digitization and e-commerce. Widespread adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) may be imminent. Employers and the government will need to develop worker training programs to make the most of these advances, because more than 17 million American workers may have to change their occupation by 2030.The members of an “empowered” workforce ideally would boast three traits: the skill to fulfill the jobs spawned by new technologies, sufficient wages to live on, and work that offers meaning and purpose.
Workforce diversity inspires innovation.
In June 2020, with the pandemic raging, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests over the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a police officer in Minneapolis burst into public prominence. Despite the pandemic, rallies cropped up across the United States. Many companies and their CEOs backed the BLM movement, which had widespread support. In addition, some companies made concrete commitments to take steps to increase diversity within their organizations. For instance, PepsiCo introduced a $400 million initiative dedicated to increasing its number of Black managers and suppliers.Bank of America launched a $1 billion campaign to improve economic opportunities for people of color. Google promised that by 2025, 30% of its executives would be members of minority groups.
“Such corporate actions shifted to conversations about Black representation in companies, underscoring the importance of diversity – one of the signature platforms of stakeholder capitalism.”
Workers’ push for greater diversity aligns with the corporate desire to secure the best and brightest workers. Research shows that companies with a diverse, inclusive workforce perform better than companies that lack diversity. Corporate leaders, who are aware that talented people bring value to an organization, understand that their firms can’t afford to overlook skilled potential employees because of their gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Nonetheless, old habits die hard. For example, it’s still rare to find women in chief-level jobs or on corporate boards.
Business can lead the response to climate change.
BlackRock, the world’s premier asset manager, manages more than $9 trillion and is a major shareholder in most Fortune 500 companies. In January 2020, CEO Larry Fink announced that, going forward, “environmental sustainability” would guide all of BlackRock’s investments. He argued that environmentally sustainable companies would provide better returns on investment. By 2021, Fink went a step further: He asked companies how they planned to arrive at net zero global emissions by 2050.
“When the world’s largest investor was asking every major company to commit to specific targets for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, it was clear the world had changed.”
Many CEOs took note. For instance, Mary Barra, CEO of GM, announced that it would strive for zero tailpipe emissions in new cars by 2035, invest $27 billion in electric vehicles and become carbon-neutral by 2040.An increasing number of companies aspire to reach net zero by 2050. Bank of America will invest $1 trillion by 2030 to help companies move toward a low-carbon economy.
CEOs can be activists – within limits.
In March 2021, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, a Republican, approved new voting regulations, and just about every Democrat accused the state’s Republicans of attempting to suppress voting – especially voting by Black people. Former American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault and Merck CEO Ken Frazier, both of whom are Black, brought prominent Black executives together to challenge the legislation. They published an open letter in a full-page ad in The New York Times. Even the CEOs of companies that aren’t located in Georgia, including Apple, Google and Facebook, spoke out against the legislation, and Major League Baseball moved its All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver.
“The most prevalent argument against CEOs speaking out was that they were stepping outside their lanes.”
While CEOs’ willingness to weigh in publicly on political issues is a relatively new phenomenon, corporations have always been involved in American politics through political donations and lobbying. According to a 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer survey, in an era “clouded by mistrust and misinformation,” when you compare business, government, media and nonprofits, business ranks as most trusted, and the public expects CEOs to speak out on important issues. Edelman states that business leaders can reinforce their trustworthiness by offering both factual statements and empathy, and by taking action on issues before they talk about them. Corporations must be objective and consistent and should collaborate with other institutions, such as the government and the media, on major problems.
Notably, not everyone is on board with the trend toward activist CEOs. A May 2021 survey of Fortune 500 CEOs revealed that only half the respondents believes CEOs have a duty to speak out about issues that affect society at large and to take leadership roles in addressing them. The other half believes business has become “too involved” and needs to step back from social and political issues.
Today’s companies must embody meaning and purpose.
Two generations ago, people worked almost entirely for money. They tended to find meaning and purpose elsewhere in their lives. But Pew Research Center findings from 2012 to 2014 show that the millennial generation is different. Millennials are less likely to be members of churches or social clubs, and are more likely to look to their jobs not just for money but for meaning and a sense of purpose.
“Business leaders increasingly recognize that their jobs have become less about telling people what to do, and more about giving them a good reason to do it.”
Leaders who define and promote their company’s mission statement and higher purpose help bring their organization’s people together. That is especially important in an economy in which a company’s value resides mostly in its human capital. Employees who feel a sense of purpose are also more likely to innovate. According to a recent Gallup survey, more than half of North American and European employees aren’t especially engaged in their work; they may do it efficiently, but probably not creatively. Workers with a sense of purpose are more resilient. By providing a sense of meaning, you can help your employees feel capable of taking action and pushing ahead in challenging times.
About the Author
Alan Murray is the CEO of Fortune Media. He writes for Fortune CEO Daily and co-hosts the Leadership Next podcast. He is the author of Showdown at Gucci Gulch: Lawmakers, Lobbyists and the Unlikely Triumph of Tax Reform.
The book is a non-fiction book that explores how the corporate world is changing in response to the social and environmental challenges of the 21st century. The book argues that the traditional model of capitalism, which prioritizes shareholder value above all else, is no longer sustainable or acceptable in a world facing crises such as climate change, inequality, and polarization. The book shows how some of the most influential CEOs in America have embraced a new vision of capitalism, which balances the interests of multiple stakeholders, including employees, customers, communities, and the planet. The book calls this vision “stakeholder capitalism” and traces its origins, evolution, and implications for the future of business and society.
The book is divided into three parts. The first part, “The Rise of Stakeholder Capitalism”, explains how the concept of stakeholder capitalism emerged from various sources, such as the Business Roundtable, the World Economic Forum, and the B Corp movement. It also examines the forces that drove CEOs to adopt this new approach, such as employee activism, customer demand, investor pressure, and regulatory risk. The second part, “The Practice of Stakeholder Capitalism”, illustrates how stakeholder capitalism works in practice by focusing on four key issues: climate change, diversity and inclusion, inequality and opportunity, and corporate governance. It showcases examples of companies that have taken concrete actions to address these issues and create value for their stakeholders. The third part, “The Future of Stakeholder Capitalism”, discusses the challenges and opportunities that stakeholder capitalism faces in the coming years. It analyzes the potential impact of stakeholder capitalism on innovation, competition, regulation, and democracy. It also offers some recommendations for CEOs, investors, policymakers, and citizens who want to support and advance stakeholder capitalism.
The book is a well-researched and well-written book that provides a compelling case for stakeholder capitalism as a viable and desirable alternative to shareholder capitalism. The book is based on extensive interviews with CEOs, experts, activists, and academics who share their insights and experiences on how stakeholder capitalism works in theory and practice. The book is also rich in data, facts, and examples that illustrate the benefits and challenges of stakeholder capitalism for different industries, sectors, and regions. The book is not a naive or idealistic praise of stakeholder capitalism, but a realistic and balanced assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. The book acknowledges the difficulties and trade-offs that stakeholder capitalism entails, such as measuring performance, aligning incentives, resolving conflicts, and ensuring accountability. The book also recognizes the diversity and complexity of stakeholder capitalism, which does not have a one-size-fits-all formula or a clear-cut definition.
The book is suitable for anyone who is interested in learning more about stakeholder capitalism and its implications for business and society. It can also be useful for business leaders who want to adopt or improve their stakeholder capitalism practices or strategies. However, the book is not a comprehensive or prescriptive guide on how to implement stakeholder capitalism in every situation or context. The book leaves room for experimentation, adaptation, and innovation by different actors and stakeholders. The book also does not address some of the deeper or broader questions that stakeholder capitalism raises, such as the role of markets, governments, civil society, and international institutions in shaping the rules and norms of stakeholder capitalism.
Overall, I think the book is a valuable resource for anyone who wants to understand the current trends and transformations in the corporate world. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a well-informed and well-argued analysis of stakeholder capitalism and its potential impact on business and society. I hope you find this summary and review helpful.