Since writing Better Business: How the B Corp Movement is Remaking Capitalism I have been invited to be a guest on many podcasts to discuss the book and the importance of sustainable and equitable business in the post-Covid world. One of the more interesting invitations came from Assurity, a life insurance company headquartered in Lincoln Nebraska to be a guest on their Good Business podcast. This raised the question for me of why an insurance company hosts and produces a podcast on good business.
To understand this better, I interviewed Tom Henning, President and CEO, Assurity. He described to me that “at Assurity, we believe business can be an agent of positive change.” And that “A large part of Assurity’s 130-year heritage is our mutuality. We were built on the concept of people coming together to help one another for the common good. This transcends insurance protection and moves into every facet of how we conduct business and build relationships.” As he told me, a podcast that amplifies the message of sustainable business is thus a natural extension of the broader company’s mission.
For more on Assurity and what it means to be a “good business,” in the insurance industry and beyond, please see below for my edited email discussion with Tom.
Christopher Marquis: What is Assurity’s social mission and why does an insurance company care about this?
Tom Henning: There’s an old saying – “We first make our habits and then our habits make us.” For companies, an apt corollary is, “First we choose our values, and then our values establish our culture.” Values become the compass that will guide associates in making decisions.
For us, values like sustainability and generosity are more than just good ideas – they’re in the interest of preserving mankind. Being a Certified B Corporation – using business as a force for good – requires us to be a leader in demonstrating and promoting sustainable business practices. It’s about more than money. Of course we care about our policyholders, distributors and home office associates; but we also care about the environment and the greater community. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.
It’s important to us to be a B Corporation. B Corps are for-profit companies that pledge to achieve social goals as well as financial ones. There are now 4,000 B Corps like us in 150 industries and 74 countries. Patagonia, New Belgium Brewing, Ben & Jerry’s and Amalgamated Bank are all leading examples of B Corps, and over the past four years many states have passed laws allowing companies to incorporate themselves as “benefit corporations.”
At Assurity we need to be profitable, but we also want to build a business that does good in the world. In today’s fiercely competitive environment, one might assume that a company that thinks and acts altruistically is doomed to failure. To a total free-marketeer, a B Corp is shareholder money wasted on do-gooding. The rise of B Corps reminds us that the idea of corporations as lean, mean, profit-maximizing machines is dictated neither by the inherent nature of capitalism nor the nature of humans. As individuals, we strive to make our work not just profitable but also meaningful.
Marquis: It was great to be a guest on a recent episode of the Good Business podcast. But a podcast on “good business” is not a typical product of an insurance company. Why is interviewing other social-focused business leaders an important set of work for you?
Henning: A large part of Assurity’s 130-year heritage is our mutuality. We were built on the concept of people coming together to help one another for the common good. This transcends insurance protection and moves into every facet of how we conduct business and build relationships. This video does a good job of summarizing who we are – what it means to be a mutual organization, how we make buying insurance easy, and why practicing sustainable habits is important to us.
As a Certified B Corp, we’re accountable to the interests of our customers, employees, our community, and the environment. It was important for us to connect with other leaders who are making business better for the world to add our voices together and make a bigger difference – it takes a lot of people to make a change, but together we can do more good. That’s the ultimate goal of the podcast.
In Assurity’s Good Business podcast, we’re sharing some of the best stories from companies like Ben & Jerry’s, Whole Foods Market, Arbor Day Foundation, B Lab and more, including some of their successes and the challenges they’ve faced along the way to building more sustainable businesses. Episodes release every few weeks, and you can follow us wherever you get your podcasts.
Marquis: Why does being a ‘good business’ matter and what does that even mean? What’s the impact if you don’t do business this way?
Henning: What should be the goal of any business?
For a long time, the prevailing view in corporate America was that advanced by the economist Milton Friedman in a September 1970 New York Times article, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits.” I used to believe this true. I was wrong.
Fortunately for the world, the thinking of many business leaders, myself included, has changed.
In 1994, John Elkington, the famed British management consultant and sustainability guru, was ahead of his time when he coined the phrase “triple bottom line.” The triple bottom line, in economics, suggests that companies should commit to focusing as much on social and environmental concerns as they do profits. Triple bottom line theory posits that instead of one bottom line, there should be three: profit, people and the planet. A triple bottom line seeks to gauge a corporation’s level of commitment to corporate social responsibility and its impact on the environment over time. The idea was that a company can be managed in a way that not only makes money, but which also improves people’s lives and the planet.
Larry Fink, the CEO of investment giant BlackRock, created quite a stir with his 2018 missive titled, “A Sense of Purpose.” In this letter he advocated that, for a company to prosper over time, it must deliver not only financial performance but also demonstrate how it makes a positive contribution to society.
Eighty-nine percent of executives surveyed in an E&Y survey said a strong sense of collective purpose drives employee satisfaction: 84 percent said it can affect an organization’s ability to transform, and 80 percent said it helps increase customer loyalty. Across corporate America the Environmental, Social and Governance movement – commonly known as ESG – has gained traction. Most large publicly traded companies now feel compelled to annually file a “Corporate Social Responsibility Report,” commonly known as a CSR.
Customers and employees gravitate toward companies that are trying to make a positive impact on the world. Millennials, who will comprise an estimated 75 percent of the workforce by 2025, especially want workplaces with social purpose. Millennials have high expectations for the actions of business when it comes to social purpose and accountability; and they want to work for companies that uphold these values. In other words, they want a company which is about more than just making money – they want a company with purpose.
There’s a growing understanding among business leaders of the need to revise their social contract with society. Corporate leaders today have the challenge of envisioning how to renew the corporate-social contract in the twenty-first century so firms contribute in distinct, relevant ways to societal well-being. To use business as a force for good!
It’s a great journey becoming a purposed-based organization, a journey which I believe more and more companies will embark on in the years ahead. Embracing an authentic purpose requires a higher level of maturity in a company’s own awareness.
Marquis: How can businesses get started with a social mission, especially small businesses?
Henning: I like what the Rhythm Systems Consulting Firm offers to help business leaders define their purpose. They share that purpose doesn’t describe your products or services, establish profitability or financial objectives or focus on achieving specific long-term business goals. Instead, purpose should be inspirational – it should make you feel proud of your company. And you can envision this purpose being as valid 100 years from now. They explain that a good purpose helps you decide which opportunities and activities to say YES to and which ones to say NO to. A purpose is authentic and will be greeted with enthusiasm rather than cynicism by company stakeholders.
So what does management need to do to make purpose come alive in their company? I like Rhythm System’s six key principles in making that a reality.
First, communication. By discussing the purpose frequency, the message will be constantly reinforced.
Second, walk the talk. By far the most important way to make core values and purpose come alive in an organization is to ensure that leadership lives them out every day. Saying the environment is important but then not backing a comprehensive recycling program sends the wrong message.
Third, associate alignment with the company’s purpose. We need to be sure and recruit people who align with the company’s purpose, and we need to be sure each individual associate is able to clearly see how what they do every day contributes to the achievement of the company’s purpose.
Fourth, be consistent. The purpose of an organization should not change. The tactics may. It is critical for leaders to be consistent in how they discuss the purpose of the organization internally and externally.
Fifth, recognition. We need to recognize and reward those individuals who are living out our purpose every day. At Assurity, every quarter we recognize an associate with our “Living Our Values” award. Others many prefer recognition which is less public.
And finally, measure what you can and learn from what you measure. We all know that what gets measured get done. But how do you measure progress on living a company’s purpose? A place to start is to think what data and evidence are critical to understanding your organizations total social, environmental and financial impact. And what metrics does your performance-management systems take into account? Seventh Generation, a maker of cleaning and personal-care products, recently built sustainability targets into the incentive system for its entire workforce, in service of its goal of being a zero-waste company by 2025.
Ultimately a shared purpose should create corporate clarity on what is really important.
Why should customers support/buy from businesses who invest back in their communities, the planet, etc.?
Henning: People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it – your purpose.
A book that had a powerful influence on my thoughts on the importance of purpose was Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why.” Mr. Sinek started a movement to help people become more inspired at work, and in turn inspire their colleagues and customers. Since then, millions have been touched by the power of his ideas, including more than 28 million who’ve watched his TED Talk based on “Start With Why” – the third most popular TED video of all time. Mr. Sinek recognized the reality that there are only two ways to influence behavior: you can manipulate it, or you can inspire it by stressing the company’s why, or its purpose. Mr. Sinek said inspiring leaders start with why.
Assurity’s ‘why’ is helping people through difficult times. By helping the communities our customers, distributors and associates live in, and the planet we all share, we are doing more good to help them and their families thrive.At the end of the day, I don’t think there’s a better reason than this: we all share in the future we create.