Doing Good to Do Well—Is It Really Possible?

Written by Stuart Hart and Matt Mayberry 

“I’d love to have a job making a difference, but somebody has to pay the bills.” How many times have you heard that? How many times have you said it?

It’s the dilemma so many professionals face. Smart, well-intentioned people who want to be successful, make a decent living, and feel valued also have the nagging feeling that the work they do does not address the most important problems in the world, and in fact may actually, if unwittingly, contribute to them. Is it possible to do well and do good? We believe the answer is, “Yes!” but not with ‘Business-As-Usual.’

Business-As-Usual Pressures
Business-As-Usual includes a set of largely tacit beliefs about the purpose of a business and how work should be conducted. These include the belief that maximizing shareholder value is the only objective for business decision-making. Business-As-Usual also incorporates norms for business conduct that often overlook bad behavior or adverse consequences for the sake of expedience in pursuit of shareholder value.

This mindset sets strong expectations for what professionals should accomplish through their daily work. It prioritizes near-term revenue growth and expense cutting rather than innovation and long-term value; neglecting negative externalities that may take decades to manifest, but may ultimately be devastating to the business, community, and industry. It rewards going along with practices that are “normal for our industry” rather than questioning them.  It creates expectations for how you “get ahead” and succeed in your career.

It’s tempting to demonize companies, their executives, and their cultures for pressuring professionals to compromise their values for the sake of making a living. But this is an over-simplistic view that lets professionals off the hook too easily and allows them to avoid taking responsibility for initiating change.

It’s tempting to demonize companies, their executives, and their cultures for pressuring professionals to compromise their values for the sake of making a living. But this is an over-simplistic view that lets professionals off the hook too easily and allows them to avoid taking responsibility for initiating change.

Escaping the Dilemma
Is there a way out of this dilemma for the professional? Fortunately, yes. However the solution starts with the professional, not with the CEO.

The key is not to wait for your boss, or your boss’s boss, to create fulfilling work for you, but instead to realize that you can initiate change in your organization that both advances your career and moves your organization in a direction that creates social and environmental benefits. This requires shifting your own paradigm away from Business-As-Usual and trade-off thinking to embrace your own leadership potential and ‘both-and’ thinking.

This is not easy. It requires confidence, competence, and credibility to be an effective change leader. You need the confidence to know that change is possible and that you can lead innovation from your position within your organization. It requires competence to identify high-leverage opportunities, to collaborate with internal and external stakeholders, to build a coalition, to connect your initiative to your organization’s strategy (and value creation), and to make a compelling business case. It also requires that you establish credibility with stakeholders and senior leaders to demonstrate that you have what it takes to produce results, not just fantasize.

Leading Sustainably: Creating a Food ‘Farmacy’ to Promote Community Health
Consider the example of Zac Conaway, Manager of Waste, Recycling and Training, and Chair of the Environmental Sustainability Council at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health (D-HH), a major healthcare network located in New Hampshire and Vermont. Early in 2019, D-HH was planning to create a Food Farm on its main campus that would produce fresh, local, and sustainable vegetables for D-HH patients and their families. This was part of an initiative to create a Food Farmacy program in which families with dietary deficiencies (including food insecurity) could be provided with a “food prescription” from their primary doctor to pick up healthy and fresh foods without the stigma of being sent to a traditional food bank.

This may sound like a fairly straightforward initiative, but keep in mind that healthcare organizations today face financial pressures that drive them to focus on internal efficiency and cost reduction. In addition, healthcare organizations tend to be highly fragmented; departments are not always highly coordinated. The Business-As-Usual model of the hospital presented Zac with significant challenges as he set out to orchestrate an “ecosystems” approach to creating the Food Farmacy.

At the same time, Zac recognized the potential of the Food Farmacy project to advance the long-term strategic goal of D-HH to promote community health rather than collect fees for healthcare services that were often preventable. Improving the diet of D-HH patients and their families is an important way to address poor nutrition in the community while also reducing healthcare costs.

For the project to succeed, Zac needed to engage both internal and external stakeholders across the D-HH and community ecosystem. These included D-HH General Internal Medicine and Dietary teams and other internal players, as well as several community partners in the region who could provide resources and expertise in addressing food insecurity and community-supported agriculture. To boost his skills and confidence in leading this effort, Zac enrolled in an eight-week online certificate program offered by the University of Vermont: Leading Sustainability Innovation. This program included a realistic simulation where Zac worked with an eight-member virtual team as they transformed a complex business ecosystem together. By practicing and refining his leadership skills, he gained confidence he needed to coordinate the diverse collection of stakeholders involved in the Food Farmacy initiative.

Due in part to Zac’s leadership, D-HH has within just a few months created a new farm on its main hospital campus and has begun producing fresh vegetables in its first growing season. This wouldn’t have been possible without the help of several community partners, such as Willing Hands, several local CSA farms, and Hypertherm, a local business that provided volunteer labor and materials to build the farm shed. Zac helped coordinate much of this work, connecting internal stakeholders in the hospital. While the project is just getting started, players across the ecosystem are already seeing the social benefits of this community collaboration. The D-HH leadership also recognizes the value of this experiment and Zac’s role in advancing D-HH’s transition to community-based healthcare. The project has also been tremendously fulfilling for Zac.

While the project is just getting started, players across the ecosystem are already seeing the social benefits of this community collaboration.

Gaining Competence, Confidence, and Credibility
There are a number of ways to build your competence, confidence, and credibility to escape Business-As-Usual, but here are a few suggestions, in order of investment required:

  • Join an Affinity Group in your company, industry, or community with like-minded professionals. One excellent place to start is with Net Impact, an organization of 100,000+ people looking to use their careers to make a positive, sustainable ‘net impact.’ Their global conference is October 24–26, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan where 1500+ emerging leaders will gather to learn from each other the best practices. For less than $500 you can attend the conference and connect with established and rising thought leaders, leading companies in sustainable business, and the 400+ chapters around the world that convene local events at nominal expense.
  • Learn & Practice the fundamentals of sustainable business through the University of Vermont’s ‘Leading Sustainable Innovation’ Certificate program. It takes only eight weeks, costs less than $2,500, and does not require you to leave your day job or your home (in fact, you can take it with you—wherever in the world there is Wi-Fi service). Furthermore, the program gives you an opportunity to learn the fundamentals of sustainable business from world experts, while immediately applying the principles with a global, virtual team through an intensive, highly realistic business simulation. Registration is due September 16, 2019 for the next program, which runs from September 23 to November 17, 2019.
  • Gain Insight & Accelerate Leadership Skills through service, by immersing yourself in a short term pro bono assignment like Corporate Champions for Education, implemented by PYXERA Global. Companies can place employees in four-week assignments in emerging and developing markets for $16,000, inclusive of training, travel, and accommodation. Slots are available for the next cohort, traveling to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam February 14–March 14, 2020. Commitment is required due by September 30, 2019.
  • Earn an MBA in Sustainable Business through top universities. Check out the Princeton Review for the Top 10 Green MBA programs, ranked based on their ability to enable students to address environmental, sustainability, and social issues in their careers. The Grossman School of Business at the University of Vermont is at the top of that list and offers the Sustainable Innovation-MBA, which can be completed in 12 months, including a three-month, full-time practicum in service to an existing company or a new enterprise focused on sustainable and inclusive innovation. Tuition for the program is $32,000 for Vermont residents and $53,000 for out-of-state students.

You don’t have to succumb to Business-As-Usual pressures to be successful in your career. In fact, you can do well by pushing back and co-creating better solutions with stakeholders from where you stand. Not only will this help you create more fulfillment through your work. You’ll make your organization better. And that’s a good thing for both your career and our world.


Co-Author Matt Mayberry, Ph.D.
Matt Mayberry, Ph.D. is the founder of WholeWorks. For more than two decades, he has worked with a variety of corporations to improve business performance through simulation-based, strategic leadership development. He is also teaches a course on systems thinking in their Sustainable Innovation-MBA program, which draws on the stakeholder-oriented principles of sustainability, critical for many of the strategic challenges of today’s turbulent marketplaces, providing a useful framework for creative thinking about new products, processes, and business models.

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