Corporate Social Responsibility

Do All Superheroes Wear Capes? No, But Anyone Can Still Be a Hero.

A wonderful, feel-good fact: Mike Ilitch, the late founder of Little Caesars, paid Rosa Parks's rent for more than a decade.
Do All Superheroes Wear Capes? No, But Anyone Can Still Be a Hero.
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What makes someone a hero in corporate America?

A hero is officially defined as a “person admired for achievements and noble qualities,” who "shows great courage” or is an “illustrious warrior.” However, the truth is that anyone can be a hero. After all, we all make choices every day, some of which take us on a heroic path, others which don’t.

Related: Corporate Philanthropy: It's Not Just Money That Changes The World

And while right and wrong don't always figure in to those choices, we may be making a conscious effort in terms of what we want our legacy to be.

I've been in business for many years. I’ve bought and sold over 250 businesses, handled millions of dollars in transactions, was chief marketing office at a Fortune 100 company and am now chairman and CEO of the C-Suite Network. Having been around this long, I've noticed a shift in how business takes place and in the perception of corporate America.

Leaders today face a new level of expectations. "Good enough" doesn’t cut it anymore. The old-school model was to drive efficiency through management control and perfection -- what was known as the "ready, aim, fire" method. But modern mainstream workforce demands are mobilizing a different leadership approach.

People don’t want to be managed; they need to be encouraged to lead, to believe in the mission and to maximize their potential and influence. The age of management is dead. It’s no longer about creating a hierarchy of control; it’s about building more leaders who "live the brand" and espouse the spirit of the value that the company offers. 

At the Rocky Mountain Economic Summit, I listened to stories about individuals who had achieved a modicum of financial success and  wanted to give back and help shape the next generation of entrepreneurs. That struck a chord with me.   

It wasn’t necessarily the giving back part; anyone can do that. It was the part about potentially mentoring someone who one day is going take your job. That, to me, is the definition of unselfish and I decided to join this "hero" journey.

Whether you’re the type of hero who likes to promote his or her good deeds (nothing wrong with that; publicity is almost always a good thing), or the hero who likes to remain anonymous (or something in between), here are four ways to make a lasting impact without having to sacrifice your bottom line.

Giving to employees

Your employees are the bloodline of any company. Their hard work is what keeps the wheels turning every single day. Despite many high-level executives being unaware, the public distrust in corporate America remains.

Related: Corporate Charity Is What Inspires Greater Employee Engagement

Many companies, like Chobani, UPS, Wells Fargo and Smuckers, are making it a point to help their employees. That's happening  in the form of company stock (or partial ownership), help paying off student loans or even help with college tuition for those wanting to continue their education. For many, this is the most direct form of heroism -- helping employees with their debts. While once the exception, these practices are becoming the norm.

I think corporate America has realized that with great powers come great responsibilities.

Engaging in corporate social responsibility

A few years back, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and companies had a "church and state" type of separation. Now, a company’s CSR efforts are directly tied to the company, its overall brand and values. In fact, more companies nowadays are making CSR part of their benefits package in order to attract younger members of the workforce and compete in the 21st century economy.

Companies like Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia and Virgin Atlantic are all synonymous with CSR. They have been engaged in these activities since back before it was cool to do so. In fact, Ben & Jerry’s reputation goes way back to its 1985 origins when its foundation was created with an initial gift of 50,000 shares. Back then, the company decided that 7.5 percent of its pre-tax profits would be directly allocated to philanthropy. The rest, as they say, is history.

Patagonia, meanwhile, is a clothing company known for its commitment to environmental issues. The environment is part of Patagonia's mission statement; the company's purpose even dictates that not much matters on a "dead planet." However, it’s not just the environment the company's leaders feel strongly about. They’re also advocating for fair labor practices and safe working conditions throughout their supply chain.

This kind of activism has made Patagonia's leaders "heroes" to many who share their commitment to social issues and causes. Working to change the world for the better is nothing short of heroic, and these executives are helping to change the face of corporate America without sacrificing their profits. That, in my book, makes them pretty high on the "hero" scoreboard.

Helping others

A few years ago, I didn’t know a thing about this guy Rob Ryan. Then, I heard a story that told me more about his character than any of his successes in business -- and there were plenty of those.

Ryan is the past chairman and CEO of Ascend Communications, and by 1989, he'd grown the company to more than $2 billion in sales. Ascend was then acquired in 1999 for approximately $24 billion and was referred to as “the largest technology merger ever.”

So, Ryan was a successful man -- at least financially. But what to do with all that money? He gave some of it to the employees who'd made the company flourish. He didn’t think much of the gesture, except that it was the right thing to do. To his surprise, he was approached by a former employee while at a restaurant. The man said, “Mr. Ryan, you probably don’t know me. I was the janitor at your company, and I wanted to thank you for your gift. It helped send my daughter to college.”

This man had tears in his eyes, and the moment resonated: Ryan had had no idea of the impact his generosity would have on his employees as well as the fact that he'd offered it without fanfare. Simply: He did it because it was the right thing to do.

That’s one of the messages that I’m trying to convey in my upcoming book, The Hero Factor: How Great Leaders Transform Organizations and Create Winning Cultures. My message is that helping others, without expecting anything in return, is what unselfish leaders should do more often. Ryan's story is just such a heroic one, at least to me.

Being an anonymous donor

We’ve all heard the stories of how an anonymous donor helped pay for someone’s layaway or contributed to someone’s college tuition. Or how someone gave a car to a total stranger who walked miles just to get to work. Did you know that the late founder of Little Caesars, Mike Ilitch, paid Rosa Parks’s rent for more than a decade? What's more, Charles Feeney, the co-founder of the Duty Free Shoppers chain, gave away $600 million over several decades before making this fact known in 1997.

Related: Why Haven't We Seen a Clear Philanthropic Vision From Jeff Bezos Yet?

In short, as I pointed out, CEOs and other high-profile executives are taking stock of what it means to be in a leadership position and a part of a global society. Among them, those who become superheroes may not wear capes but they should understand that anyone can (and should) be a hero -- not for the glory, but because it’s the right thing to do.

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