At the turn of this year, an Ideolog article caught my eye about the social issues New Zealand’s CEOs are championing in 2019, especially these words.

“…this is the era of activist businesses that make it their company’s mission to create social change…”

It got me thinking more deeply about how the most successful businesses seem to have a clear agenda they become known for. They don’t just think it, nor say it, they act on it.

In the past, social impact was a nice spin on corporate social responsibility. The softer edge to hard-nosed business. Today, the most progressive companies are agents of change with leaders that promote a clear agenda to do good

The best kind of agendas are those that make the company, and us, look good and feel good in the process. The kind of leadership for humans that helps everyone rally together and stay in synch with something bigger than any one person.

Today’s leaders are making humble pie not having pie in the sky ideals that are hard to uphold.

All leadership starts with an ambition; an idea and a mission. But, in the rough and tumble of business when people are pulled in so many directions, pressures build up. It’s natural for leaders to get distracted, overwhelmed and disoriented. Under these circumstances, it’s easy to forget what you’re all about, even if you have a snappy strap-line to remind you.

The true test of leadership is to set ideals and live up to them publicly.

I confess I’ve spent hundreds of hours working with leaders in organisations of all types and sizes thoughtfully turn their intentions into beautifully crafted leadership statements. Yet, I’ve spent as much time supporting people bemused, belittled and befuddled by those prescribed standards.

How hard can it be, I’ve wondered, for people to set and stick to their ideals?

It’s a hard truth to suggest but too often leaders intellectualise their motives and theorise about their impacts. It’s a case of it’s easier to say it, than do it.

So, I’ve been pondering how about we infiltrate more activism and less idealism into leadership. Wondering if we infused our businesses with a clearer agenda, would we be more or less likely to be the leader our customers, colleagues and collaborators would respect?

One of the most inspiring companies I know, is CoGo, known formerly as Conscious Consumers. They’re all about helping people live up to their ethical and social conscience, one shopping transaction at a time. 

CoGo has evolved from a small voluntary organisation to one of New Zealand’s most successful social enterprises, that’s now in the UK. What’s stayed constant under the leadership of Co-Founder, Ben Gleisner, is their relentless pursuit to put power into the hand of consumers so businesses can take action on the things that matter most to their customers, such as reducing waste, paying people a living wage and switching to local, ethical, sustainable and cruelty free goods.

But, business activism doesn’t have to be on a global scale. Some businesses make their difference at local community level.

Thankyou Payrollputs purpose and profit side-by-side with their community. They make payroll services accessible to small businesses and charities and distribute part of their profits to good causes and community groups via their Charitable Trust.

Talk to Thankyou Payroll CEO, Christina Bellis, and she champions much more than the services or their philanthropy. She sees a big opportunity for supporting their customers to follow their lead to be more socially and environmentally conscious, such as reducing their carbon footprint or adopting flexible and equitable working practices.

Being a social enterprise isn’t a pre-requisite for having an agenda. All companies can be enlivened by doing something that’s more meaningful than just making a profit.

In my recent work with tech startups at Creative HQ in WellingtonI’ve seen passion develop into exciting businesses and big ideas fall flat through lack of a clear leadership perspective. The ones that stand are those who not just to serve customers, but are leading a bigger movement through their products and services.

Take Hnry, which takes away the hassle of financial admin for self-employed people by bringing it all into one simple, affordable and accessible service. They want contractors and freelancers to be free from the headaches of handling their tax and accounting. Hnry champions people to take the leap into self-employment and focus on what independent workers love most, the work. In doing so, Hnry has broken new ground to become a trusted financial sidekick for sole traders and one of New Zealand’s fastest-growing tax agencies. 

Or, Sharesieswhich makes investing easy. The co-founders wanted someone with $50 to have the same investment opportunities as someone with $50,000. They’ve gone on to transform the investing landscape in New Zealand helping many thousands of kiwis grow their personal wealth. Their leadership as a company helps people make affordable investing a long-term habit.

If you want to create a leadership philosophy that makes business a force for good, you could become a Certified B Corporation. B Corp’s define their success by the positive impact they create for employees, communities and the environment. Or, you can just lead with greater activism with a clear agenda you’re determined to uphold.

And there’s the rub. Having an ‘agenda’ has a bad rap. It’s most often considered to be manipulative and secretive. More prosaically, it’s become the bi-word for bureaucratised conversations. 

But according to Fowler’s, Modern English Usage, agenda actually means “things to be done”.

To me, having an agenda is a powerful declaration. It beats passive statements of leadership intent so full of weasel words and vacuous statements.

With a clear and simple agenda, you have a rallying cry. The prod in the direction you want others to subscribe so together you can be part of something bigger together.

Declaring an agenda cuts through the clutter and chatter that can dilute leadership intentions, and make leaders appear passive.

For the record, let’s assume that your agenda isn’t destructive, illegal nor unethical. The agenda you are setting is about activating your business for good, not evil.

Having a simple and clear agenda helps you stay on track. It’s a way to bring a sharper, more human perspective on your values, purpose and vision. It can be the vehicle to make your leadership ambitions a reality.

Whether you are the one setting, shaping or following an agenda, it all takes leadership. The willingness to have a point of view and wantingness to take action with feeling and meaning.

We all have an agenda. Right?

And mine?

Taking a no-nonsense approach to leadership development for entrepreneurial and creative people.

I believe leadership has become overhyped and overplayed in meaningless ways. It’s left people confused about what leadership is, and isn’t. And, whether they are leadership material. 

In my experience there is leadership. There are leaders. And there are people who just lead. These are the activists who are making the biggest difference because they lead with a clear agenda.

People can be more productive, creative and entrepreneurial in their work when the agenda is clear. It not just common sense but makes for better leadership.

What do you think?

I’m curious – what’s your agenda? 

What makes you an activist in your work?

Let’s discuss.