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In today’s rapidly shifting corporate landscape, where the expectation that businesses serve a greater purpose is growing, Alison Taylor’s Higher Ground: How Business Can do the Right thing in a Turbulent World emerges as an informative and thoughtful read. This book delves into the intricacies of building a purpose-driven organization amidst a sea of challenges and complexities. My exploration of Taylor’s work came as I was already contemplating the purpose at Threadline and offered a treasure trove of insights about operationalizing ethical and equitable business practices.

Embracing the Realities of Purpose-Driven Business

Taylor’s book, primarily targeted at leaders of major corporations, notably Fortune 500 companies, encompasses a breadth of ideas that transcend industry and scale. Her examination of corporate social responsibility (CSR) sheds light on the often “purpose-washed” approaches pervasive in today’s discourse. She unpacks the buzzwords devoid of actionable strategies, challenging businesses to pivot from rhetoric to impactful operations.

What resonated with me was the identification of the inherent challenges in aligning a business’s operations with its ethical aspirations. From the dynamics of addressing diverse stakeholder needs to the daunting task of balancing profitability with principled practice, Taylor doesn’t shy away from the conflicts that companies face. Her narrative is anchored in the reality that declaring a commitment to ethical practices not only opens a company up to praise but also to intense scrutiny and potential criticism. She notes that the businesses most committed to responsible business practices are also those most targeted not only by naysayers but supporters looking for more progress.

This dynamic, Taylor notes, can create a self-defeating prophecy where organizations shy away from doing, or at least talking about, the work out of a fear of having their flaws and mistakes highlighted rather than their effort and impact. As a result, less willing businesses step forward and more nefarious organizations slip under the radar while the attention is on those businesses leading the charge. Because of that scrutiny, Taylor recommends an approach that focuses an organization’s efforts and engages with its stakeholders in more meaningful and productive ways.

Strategic Focus and Realistic Impact

The crux of Higher Ground lies in its strategic advice to businesses overwhelmed by the multitude of social and environmental issues demanding attention. Taylor advocates for a focused approach—encouraging businesses to hone in on issues where they can wield the most influence and make tangible impacts. This perspective was particularly enlightening for me, as it aligned with the challenges my own small consultancy faces. It shifted my thinking from a broad, almost quixotic desire to address all societal issues, to a more targeted approach centered on areas directly related to our industry and capabilities.

While we care about the climate crisis, we can make the most impact in areas like consumer rights and ethical marketing. Shifting our lens in this way makes progress not only feel more possible, but more manageable. We know the marketing industry – we don’t know the science of global warming. That’s not permission to just start pouring motor oil into our lawns for fun. It’s an opportunity to do no harm in some areas while attempting to make more impact in others.

Prioritizing Human Rights in Business Practices

Among the various strategies discussed, Taylor prioritizes human rights as a starting point for organizing CSR efforts. This prioritization built on the strategy from above, suggesting that before we can tackle broader issues like environmental rights or policy changes, businesses should ensure they are creating equitable opportunities and fair treatment for all individuals involved—be it employees, clients, or partners.

Practical Takeaways and Empowerment

Despite its primary audience of large corporations, Higher Ground offers invaluable lessons for businesses of all sizes. It demystifies the process of integrating purpose into business, providing frameworks and strategies that make the daunting task of ethical business practice seem more attainable. The book serves not only as a guide but as a catalyst for reflection and action, encouraging business leaders to scrutinize and potentially redefine their strategies and goals in light of broader societal impacts.

Reading Higher Ground was an empowering experience that expanded my understanding of what it means to run a business conscientiously and ethically. It reinforced the importance of not just setting lofty goals but also committing to the practical aspects of achieving them. For anyone at the helm of a business—whether a budding entrepreneur or a seasoned executive—Taylor’s book offers a thoughtful exploration of the challenges and rewards of embedding purpose into the very fabric of a company’s operations. I recommend it to those eager to elevate their business practices and, by extension, their impact on the world.

If you’ve read it, what did you think? And if you have recommendations or thoughts, share them in the comments below. The practice of building a better business is, perhaps more than anything, an ongoing conversation.

Cover photo from Alison Taylor