Defy or Define Superhero Expectations?

May 30, 2014 | Commerce, English, Ideas, Ideas for Organisation, Ideas for Strategy, TheColumnist

Tweet Line: Collectively companies are now the world’s most powerful force, time to live up to a higher measure.

Greenpeace wants global companies to save the earth. The Media wants CEOs to be another Steve Jobs. Governments want corporations to serve the nation. Consumers want companies to be Santa Clause. The Pope wants big businesses to be Mother Theresa. All these are on top of what companies believe they have actually signed up for, which is to deliver value to customers, staff and shareholders.

Maybe that’s why there was no celebratory note from Mountain View when Google was crowned the most valuable brand in the world. Maybe Google knows that winning that title matters little today. The more urgent task is to manage the rising tide of unrealistic expectations for companies. It might have even been a relief for Apple, the former number one global brand, to hand over the spotlight—and the hot seat—to Google.

Carefree days are over

Running a business used to be such a simple affair. (For maximum effect, picture the Emmy-winning series, Mad Men.) Back then bravado and hard work were the ingredients for success. No one cared about how you spent your money or if your company ever donated anything to charity. Even if you did, it was generally a quiet affair. The focus then was crystal clear: Be profitable, pay your taxes and you get to keep your peace. (Picture Silvio Berlusconi looking forlorn and reminiscing about those glorious days.)

Fast forward to today. In the weeks leading up to Google’s acclamation as the world’s most valuable brand, it was besieged with new responsibilities and accusations. The European Union passed a landmark ruling in favour of a user’s right to be forgotten, putting new pressure on the search giant’s business model. Edward Snowden’s leaked documents shed new light on how the NSA was able to collect massive amounts of information on individuals, in some cases suggesting a greater role for Google as a collaborator than was previously acknowledged.

Some critics say that Google might have painted a big target on itself when it proclaimed “Don’t be evil” as its informal motto. But even Apple, which has never made such proclamations, has been under pressure since the start of its rise to the top. The late Steve Jobs frequently defied and ignored demands by various groups to be more green, respect human rights and give more to charity. According to a 2011 New York Times article, there was no public record of Jobs donating money to charity, although other reports said that he gave generously to HIV research.

Bill Gates, before he became the poster boy for philanthropy, was also under constant pressure to do more. Eventually he did, going a step further by earmarking almost all of his wealth for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation is now widely admired for working on some of the most pressing challenges in healthcare and education. Gates will certainly go down in history as having shaped two major industries of our time, personal computers and philanthropy.

An opportunity to define the rules

Is it fair game to expect so much of our companies? Maybe so. According to the World Trade Organisation, if you consider the MNC as a country, then 51 out of the 100 largest economies in the world would be global corporations.

The influence of global brands in terms of shaping beliefs and behaviours is even more astounding. Take for example the Catholic Church, which is the world’s largest organised religion with 1.2 billion members. Facebook is just slightly behind with 1 billion members, not counting the non-Facebook using members of acquisitions such as Instagram and WhatsApp—and it’s still growing. So if Facebook were to be considered an organised religion, then it would certainly be the most influential one in the world.

The bottom line is that companies that reach a certain level of success are only going to attract more and more scrutiny. Perhaps sensing an opportunity, Tim Cook has been pivoting Apple to be a more responsible corporate citizen. He was quoted as saying that he’d like the company to “leave the world better than we found it”.

Cook has certainly been busy in this regard, telling investors to get out of the stock if they have problems with Apple’s social agenda and allowing auditors to check on its biggest supplier, Foxconn, to enforce a fair working environment in its China factories. Recently, Apple put out a global ad campaign touting its green credentials and for the first time ever, its corporate commitment to a greener planet. Cook is not alone in this pivot; others like Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Banyan Tree Chairman, Ho Kwon Ping, have been integrating sustainable and responsible practices into daily operations for some time.

A new index for a changed world

We need a new framework for measuring corporate impact, one that serves today’s world. By default, companies are expected to be profitable and to provide exceptional brand experiences. At the same time they are tasked with shaping a better world. If companies themselves are unwilling to define those standards then they should be prepared for governments, NGOs and consumers to step in. Regulating corporate behaviour without understanding how those actions would affect growth could cost businesses and in turn affect the global economy.

It is in the interests of companies and society to rein in unrealistic expectations by defining the criteria for responsible and sustainable corporate behaviour. We believe that a viable measure has to consider the fact that a company has obligations to both society and corporate stakeholders. Here are six aspects in which companies can be measured on how they are shaping a better world through daily work:

  • Better Organisations – How they develop people and raise human dignity through meaningful work
  • Better Design – How they design experiences that are inclusive to everyone.
  • Values-driven – How they propagate values that support responsible behaviour
  • Nurturing Entrepreneurs – How they create opportunities to support entrepreneurship and industrial renewal and growth
  • Sustainable Innovation – How they develop ideas and partnerships that contribute to better use of the Earth’s resources
  • Smarter World – How they encourage a better understanding of our world and improve interconnectedness

We invite companies to use this Shape the World Index as a tool to explain their impact to stakeholders. We believe that this balanced approach will deliver responsible behaviour while leading to better brands, better employees and better competition for companies. It’s a win-win for everyone.

We have been reviewing possible candidates for a global index. If you know of a company that demonstrates any of these attributes, please nominate them by emailing our secretariat at

The world has many demands of companies, but there are also many leaders who passionately believe that they are here to shape a better world. Companies, don’t be afraid to put on that cape. Be the superhero you are meant to be.

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Shape the World Summit 2024 will be held on June 21st at Jewel Changi Airport, with a closing keynote by Mr. Lim Boon Heng, Chairman of Temasek Holdings.

This year’s summit will launch groundbreaking initiatives such as AgriCORE for regenerative agriculture, DialogueCORE for inclusion resilience, and FamilyCORE for family-led foundation impacts.

The event concludes with a gala dinner marking Consulus’ 20th anniversary and the book launch of Creative Change: Becoming Changemakers and Seeing the Heart of Lasting Change by Lawrence Chong.

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