Guest opinion: How business leaders can help communities in 2020

Published 1:27 pm Tuesday, January 14, 2020

By Quint Studer

In August, the New York Times ran an article on the Business Roundtable’s new statement on the purpose of a corporation. The point of this official statement — signed by leaders of companies like Amazon, Walmart, Pepsi and Apple — was that corporations shouldn’t just advance shareholder interests. They should also commit to investing in employees, dealing fairly and ethically with suppliers, supporting the communities in which they work, and so forth.

As someone who works to revitalize communities across the U.S., I applaud these leaders for their desire to redefine the role of business in the community. Their statement supports what I’ve felt for years: When business leaders play a pivotal role in shaping their communities, everyone wins.

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Corporate leaders and CEOs are well positioned to make a huge impact on the future of their communities. Not only do they have the financial wherewithal to drive progress, they have the influence, the social capital, the expertise, and the smarts to do so. They are the people Gallup chairman and CEO Jim Clifton calls “tribal leaders.” They know how to get things done. And we really need them to work shoulder to shoulder with government leaders, employees and citizens to create vibrant communities where people want to live, work and play.

Right now, many communities are struggling with a leadership void. In part, it’s because their “pillars” — institutions like banks, hospitals, businesses and newspapers — used to be locally owned. Now, many have been bought by larger corporations. This means the leaders who run these organizations may be in the community for only a short period of time. It’s no longer a given that they’ll retire there. And this creates a vacuum in long-term leadership planning.

That’s why it is good to see these CEOs sign the new Business Roundtable statement. It speaks to the need for local business leaders to step up to the challenge and fill that void. Drawing on my experience in community revitalization, if you’re a corporate leader, there are several places I believe we could use your help:

Be a hybrid investor. We all know what pure philanthropy is: funding a new foundation, sponsoring a piece of public art, or giving financially in some other way. This is always deeply appreciated. However, hybrid philanthropy is another great option that pays off for the investor and the community. This means making a local investment that does yield a return — just not as much of a return as you might get with other investments.

A hybrid investor might build a residential complex downtown; contribute to a co-op space; or invest in a new, local company in their community. When you make the first move, it’s a confidence-builder. Things start to pop. It also helps gets wealth off the sidelines. And it sends a powerful message that it’s okay to take a smaller financial return when the real ROI is a better community for everyone.

Support an entrepreneurial ecosystem. A strong small business presence is the economic engine that drives most communities. You can strengthen this ecosystem in many ways. For example, you might join other leaders in town to fund a new business challenge. You might help a promising entrepreneur pay start-up costs or offer a lease with rent that moves up and down with revenue. Even simple things like buying from a new local business or sending strong job candidates their way can help.

Mostly, you can use your social capital to bring small business owners together and help them form meaningful connections and collaborate on issues that impact everyone (like tackling the talent drain, how best to create a vibrant downtown, how to create opportunity for young people, etc.). What you’re doing is helping galvanize the army of citizens who happen to be small business owners with the purpose of working toward revitalization.

Share your skills and expertise with other leaders (especially small business owners). Helping new ventures to get off the ground is only the start. Thriving communities are ones in which local businesses can be successful long-term. That means they need to offer plenty of opportunities to teach leadership fundamentals and other vital business skills.

If your chamber offers training and development sessions, get involved. Lead a workshop or share company resources. Open up your corporate training to local small businesses. Or be a mentor: In The Coming Jobs War, Jim Clifton writes, “The heroes America needs for this moment in history will come from those who guide, advise, encourage and mentor small business to success.”

Get involved in raising civic IQ. Informed citizens are the “boots on the ground” that make things happen. But until they understand what’s going on and how they will benefit, they’ll never get on board with revitalization plans. Civic education helps people understand the why behind growth initiatives. It gets more people to buy in until, eventually, a community achieves the critical mass that allows progress to happen faster.

The easiest way to educate is to bring in speakers. In Pensacola, we do this via our CivicCon series, which regularly brings in experts in community-building. There are many ways business leaders can help. For example, sponsor a speaking event, offer up a venue or share your company’s resources (IT talent or social media staff).

These are only a few suggestions. There are many others. Take stock of your gifts and resources. Think about what you might have to offer. Then, reach out to local community leaders and ask what you can do to help. We all need strong, vital, vibrant communities that work well for everyone, and we can all play a role in building them. If there is a way we can help, we have a human responsibility to make it happen.

Quint Studer is author of Building a Vibrant Community: How Citizen-Powered Change Is Reshaping America and Wall Street Journal bestseller The Busy Leader’s Handbook: How to Lead People and Places That Thrive. He is founder of Pensacola’s Studer Community Institute, a businessman and currently serves as the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the University of West Florida.