The duty of a business goes much deeper than turning a profit, or even meeting a need.
It’s an idea that Cheryl Stallworth-Hooper (MBA ’81) has built her career around. In 2016, she cofounded ShedLight.org, an organization that seeks to amplify diverse voices in order to help businesses make more informed decisions. But her interest in corporate social responsibility began much earlier.
Throughout her career journey—which has included leadership stints with The Coca-Cola Co., Colgate, and Firefly—Stallworth-Hooper has encountered experiences and role models that have helped her refine her perspective on what it means to be a socially responsible leader. She recently shared this hard-earned wisdom with Wisconsin MBA students, faculty, and alumni as part of the Wisconsin School of Business’ M. Keith Weikel MBA Leadership Speaker Series.
“We in America are a capitalist society, and corporations are powerful,” Stallworth-Hooper said. “To me, it’s their role to make a contribution.”
The power of businesses encompasses their ability to establish cultural, economic, and technology trends—but, Stallworth-Hooper explained, their influence goes beyond these. As evidence, she cited the Eldman Trust Barometer, a global study that examines the level of trust people have in governments and businesses. For years, companies have garnered more trust than governments. Therefore, if companies are trusted entities, the public expects them to take a stand on important issues.
But taking a stand can be scary, no matter how much power a company possesses. Acknowledging this, Stallworth-Hooper defined courageous leadership as the act of building a business while using one’s resources to create positive change. While at first glance community impact may seem outside the scope of business, she encouraged her audience not to be intimidated.
“We are built for this … We know how to do this,” she said. “It’s about solving problems. And so, if we can solve big business problems, why can’t we use our resources to solve some of the problems around us, to create a world that we want to live in?”
Courageous, purpose-driven leadership
Embracing and overcoming fear: Take things slowly, prepare
Stallworth-Hooper argued that business leaders shouldn’t flinch from fear but rather embrace it as part of the journey. And the best way to work through it? Take things slowly.
“I had a ski instructor once who would say, ‘When you go to the top of that mountain, do not just look at the bottom of the mountain and think you’re just going to go straight down that hill,’” Stallworth-Hooper recalled. “That’s too hard. If you traverse the mountain, it forces you to stay in the moment with every step, and I think that’s just a good thing that I keep in mind. It’s one step at a time.”
Another tactic Stallworth-Hooper uses to overpower her fear is preparation. When approaching a challenging situation, she researches the topic. Doing so helps her process what is occurring—and often helps her achieve her goal.
“When you show people the facts,” she explained, “it helps change the conversation.”
Pillars of strong leadership: Personal values, technical skills
For Stallworth-Hooper, there are two main pillars of strong leadership: personal values and technical skills. Personal values include qualities such as honesty, innovation, being in touch with the community, and accountability to not only shareholders but also the lowest-paid workers in the organization.
Equally as important to a leader’s personal values are their technical skills, particularly regarding management. Stallworth-Hooper stressed the importance of “creating an environment where the values of your organization are a reflection of your leadership and you’re helping people become their best selves.” She also encouraged business leaders to consider what they’re investing in, listen to their employees, and truly get to know their buyers, as these factors can greatly influence business strategies.
Socially responsible companies: Finding a good fit
For professionals hoping to join a socially responsible organization, Stallworth-Hooper suggested examining a potential employer from three perspectives. First, what new or exciting things has the company done—what does it invest in? Second, what kind of people has the company promoted recently? And finally, what challenging social issues has the company faced, and how did it deal with them? The answers to these questions provide insight into the company’s value system and help determine if it’s a good fit.
While being a socially responsible leader isn’t easy—and often requires great courage—Stallworth-Hooper maintained that contributing to society is an intrinsic component of a business career.
“We are experiencing the greatest amount of social change since the 1960s. We’re living through it,” she said. “And there’s a lot that’s expected of us as citizens and as businesspeople.”