Recently I “spent” two days with the Dalai Lama at the EngageNow conference in Calgary, Alberta. Hosted by the University of Calgary, the focus of the event was to inspire and create active participation in local communities throughout that city.
I was asked to speak at the conference, joining a global roster including F.W. de Klerk, Sir Richard Branson, Stephen Covey and His Holiness. Certainly I was honored to join such accomplished individuals. “When will I speak?” I asked the event organizers. “Directly following the Dalai Lama.” Humbled and curious, I inquired, “Why?” The answer was that they felt my life’s work and message about the power of business authentically embracing social issues would provide a perfect bridge for the audience.
A request like that causes one to deeply reflect. I reviewed my work spanning over 25 years guiding companies to genuinely embrace social issues. Our clients approached this strategy quite personally. Paul Fireman at Reebok, Jim Preston at Avon, Bruce Rohde at ConAgra, and more recently, Clarence Otis at Darden, Jim Rohr at PNC, Christina Gold at Western Union and Steve Loranger of ITT. Each desired to authentically and sustainably engage with a cause. Intuitively they knew this could be a powerful way to inspire employees, engage more fully with customers while enhancing their reputation and make a social impact.
In each case, the work with these companies resulted in innovative and long-term commitments to many causes, new awareness and increased funding, with each showing significant results. The issues and approaches varied: human rights, breast cancer, childhood hunger, youth enrichment, economic opportunity for migrants and access to clean water. While each CEO explained his or her vision in a different manner, they all had one thing in common: compassion.
Compassion? Frankly, in the years of our work, I never thought of it as the expression of compassion. That is, until I “spent” two days with this self-proclaimed “simple monk.”
Indeed, I had to ask myself, “Could business be compassionate?”
The Dalai Lama has a broad definition of compassion: “We are the same human beings. I want a happy life. You want a happy life. On that level we can work together and make a common effort for a better world,” he said in Calgary. He continued, “True happiness comes from a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood … We need to cultivate universal responsibility for one another and the planet we share … We all share a common humanity, no matter what country, young or old, rich or poor.”
His Holiness made a critical point just before I followed him onstage, “Trust is the basis of harmony.” I was thankful for that timely comment because, despite hours and hours of practice, I was not totally sure how I would open my speech. Trust, actually the lack thereof, is one of the primary reasons why business must embrace social issues, and it was the first point I had planned to discuss. Trust, I said, is absolutely critical in order to earn a daily license to operate, to attract and retain the best employees, to relate to today’s ever more skeptical consumers, communities, NGOs and government officials.
As he left the stage, His Holiness came into the crowd where I stood. I was so fortunate to briefly meet him. He grasped my hand for what seemed like an eternity and looked into my eyes. I mentioned I was next onstage to talk about business and compassion. I think he smiled. It all happened so fast.
As I took to the stage, my goal of meeting His Holiness was accomplished. I had met, indeed grasped hands, with perhaps the most humble and serene individual in the world. His message of universal responsibility deeply touched my core. It was an experience that will reinforce my passion and commitment to inspiring and creating sustainable and authentic public-private partnerships for years to come.
- Carol Cone