The night before a major meeting with our client’s executive team in Santiago, Chile a few weeks ago, I was scarfing down dinner at a pizza joint while discussing with my team the shared value strategy we were recommending for our client. About halfway through dinner, a woman at the table next to us leaned over and said, “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help but overhear you mentioning shared value. Do you mean the Porter and Kramer concept?”
The three of us on the case looked at each other and couldn’t help but laugh. The question was unexpected, but at the same time a reminder of how this concept of shared value has resonated with so many people in the international business community and beyond.
As we prepared our presentation for the client later that night, however, I was reminded that—as always—talking about the theory is easier than putting it into practice. Our project in Santiago required a very practical application of the shared value concept to a specific set of business issues. Because these issues were the same ones that the executive team had tried to address for the last several years, we had to not only convince the executives of the applicability of shared value to their circumstances, we had to show how what we were proposing was meaningfully different from what they had done in the past.
As the presentation unfolded the next day, it occurred to me that the idea is even more compelling when people can see how it relates directly to their business. One senior executive pounded the table and said, “We MUST do this.” Another senior executive said, “These issues are not new to us—we have thought about them for years – but the treatment of them is [new].”
Perhaps even more heartening was a conversation I had with another executive during that trip. We were discussing one of our proposed shared value initiatives, and he said, “This idea is fine in concept, but it won’t have the business impact we need or the social impact we want. Here is how we can improve it.” Hearing someone who would be tasked with implementing our ideas speak in shared value language was one of the more rewarding aspects of the project to date.
When I’m down in the details of a project, building slides, writing memos, and responding to emails, it can feel like what we are doing is just an extension of business as usual. It’s inspiring to have reminders, whether from strangers in restaurants, senior leaders, or day-to-day practitioners that shared value is a different way of thinking about business problems. It is also a reminder that there is a long way to go.