For the past two decades, CEOs have been largely positive about the impact of globalisation on their businesses and markets. But, by 2007, they were beginning to express reservations about the short-term effects on society. CEOs are still ambivalent today.
The vast majority believe that globalisation has helped to free flows of money, people, goods and information, facilitate universal connectivity and create a skilled workforce. Yet a significant number say it’s done nothing to mitigate climate change, promote the development of fairer tax systems or close the gap between rich and poor.
Nearly all the CEOs we surveyed this year think it’s vital to address social challenges by focusing on purposeful growth. The question is how. The political, economic, regulatory and social systems within which companies operate are creaking; indeed, many people see them as part of the problem. In what ways and to what extent, then, should CEOs be expanding the scope of their leadership by working with others to drive systemic change?
We asked CEOs to tell us how they believe the corporate community can help to spread the benefits of globalisation more widely. The majority say the best way is to collaborate, particularly with government, but some add that governments don’t listen very well. And a noticeable minority of CEOs say their business is too small to engage effectively or assume there’s little they can do to effect change.
In fact, companies can play a valuable part in the debate about the systems that govern business and society, including the effect of technology on these systems. The future of globalisation is clearly one topic for discussion. Some CEOs think business has a role to play in promoting the benefits of globalisation. Others favour adopting a ‘glocal’ approach.
Addressing the dangers of globalisation and technology, while capitalising on the opportunities, they present is a delicate balancing act. Many CEOs freely admit that they struggle, both because they’re uncertain about the extent of their company’s social obligations and because greater emphasis on shareholder value has made it far more difficult to prioritise long- over short-term performance. Businesses that respond effectively – by articulating their purpose, anticipating risks and adhering to the values they profess – will thrive.
In 1998, we concluded that these were ‘great times in which to be a global CEO’. While we believe these can still be great times in which to be a global CEO, we also think a paradigm shift in the role of business is required to produce the ‘better, more harmonious, less divided planet’ we envisaged. The ascendancy of corporations around the globe has contributed to prosperity; it’s created jobs, raised living standards and delivered innovative products and services that have bettered lives. But that’s no longer enough. In the headlong rush to reap the benefits of technology and globalisation, the human factor has been lost. It’s time for CEOs to step forward and help safeguard the future by ensuring the benefits of business go to everyone.