Thoughts after Concordia Summit and UN meetings: the responsibility of business to serve society

Thoughts after Concordia Summit and UN meetings: the responsibility of business to serve society

Barbara Humpton, CEO of Siemens USA

“Sea change.” That’s how Liz Schrayer, president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, described the shift that’s happening in the private sector during our panel at last week’s Concordia Annual Summit.


She was referring to the focus that companies today are putting on global challenges. At Siemens, solving these problems is our purpose. As we like to ask: If you’re not creating value for society, why do you exist?


We’re not alone, of course, in believing that the business of business is more than business. We recently joined 180 companies in signing an updated Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation released by Business Roundtable. It outlines our commitment to customers, employees, suppliers and communities, in addition to our shareholders.


And I’m even more convinced in the power of businesses to lead – and our responsibility to – after engaging last week with other business leaders at the Concordia Summit and at the UN Climate Action Summit.


Businesses are part of the fabric of our society, defining what we do and what we create. For Siemens, that work is reflected in our technical capabilities and our large-scale technologies in electrification, automation and digitalization. We call ourselves a business-to-society company because it’s our mission to add value and find solutions to the big problems facing the world. The way we see it, If we don’t, who will?


The follow-up question I’m often asked is what this actually looks like in practice. When you’re a business that serves society, how do you know when you’re making progress? How do you grow and stay competitive?


And I’d like to share these two points in response.


The first is that serving society is a business strategy. At Siemens, our entire strategy is organized around the megatrends that are shaping the globe – inexorable forces like urbanization, climate change and digitalization. We’re looking ahead to what the world will look like in 2050.


And what we’ve found is that this business framework provides a great deal of overall stability, even amid the accelerating technological change we’re now experiencing in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


It’s also helped shape our own digital transformation. As I shared during a talk at Harvard Business School earlier this summer, we’re looking at this moment of unprecedented innovative disruption as an opportunity to reimagine and reinvent the conglomerate – a Corporation 4.0 to match Industry 4.0. And what grounds the steps we’re taking to make sure our businesses can continue to be strong and competitive in their markets and meet customers’ expectations is fulfilling this bigger purpose and mission.


My second point concerns our goalposts. With work spanning 190 countries, we’re thinking about progress at Siemens in the same way that the United Nations is, using as our guide the Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 that the General Assembly agreed to in 2015.


And when we look at the diverse projects that we’re involved in around the world, we see that we’re contributing to all 17 of those UN goals, from clean energy and climate action to good health and quality education.


Take our energy megaproject in Egypt as a primary example. Much more than a simple business transaction or construction project, this partnership was ultimately about using our power generation capabilities to improve people’s livelihoods. By boosting power capacity, we paved the way for 40 million Egyptians to have access to reliable electricity. And in the process trained some 5,000 Egyptians to work in the power business.


We’re even walking the walk with our own sustainability goals as a company, promising to become carbon-neutral by 2030. We were one of the first major industrial companies in the world to make this commitment.


With people from around the world meeting at the United Nations, it’s been a privilege for me to share our mission and our goals, and why we put purpose at the center of everything that we do. I see these conversations as a reminder of how we all have a role to play in the future we’re creating. And what a sea change can truly help us accomplish.