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“We Have a Greater Responsibility to Society than Just the Bottom Line”—Steve Collis and Doug Conant on Creating Purpose-Driven, High-Performing Organizations

At ConantLeadership’s third bi-annual BLUEPRINT Leadership summit—a free meeting of the top leadership luminaries in the business space—Doug Conant, Founder and CEO of ConantLeadership was joined in conversation by Steve Collis, CEO of AmerisourceBergen Corporation (ABC). Together, they discussed how to create organizations that are both purpose-driven and high-performing.

Enjoy the following tips for how to connect to a greater sense of purpose and to help others to do the same, pulled from their conversation. You can also watch the full discussion between Collis and Conant here (fast forward to 00:08:44 to skip housekeeping and intros).

It’s about more than just doing good business

Doug Conant describes Steve Collis as “the best CEO I’ve ever known,” a significant statement from Conant whose worked with CEOs across the globe in his 45+ year leadership career, including as a member of AmerisourceBergen’s (ABC) board for six years. As an insider, Conant saw Collis lead ABC from a $70-80 billion wholesaler to a $200 billion plus company with a diverse portfolio.

Conant explains that it’s not just Collis’s financial success at ABC that makes him a tremendous CEO but also how he leads people and helps his company focus on their corporate purpose. Conant says it’s about more than just “doing good business . . . we have a greater responsibility to society than just the bottom line.” Collis agrees and shares that ABC was able to grow because they focused on being more “aligned with the mission, vision, and values of our customers.”

When Collis first became CEO, ABC’s competitors were, “significantly better known and better resourced.” In order to compete, his goal was to grow the business by broadening his definition of a stakeholder. He looked beyond the shareholders and delivered value for all stakeholders including team members, patients, customers, and the community. This paradigm shift allowed the company to become more entrepreneurial and to grow their business in new directions including an expansion of their specialty business. ABC was well known for being an efficient, low-cost provider—but this new way of thinking opened the door to exploring the emergence of specialty drugs and broadening their understanding of the healthcare community.

Collis shares the importance of “looking at customers, both up and downstream.” This means understanding customers at the highest-level—large organizations and groups who will engage with your product—as well as understanding the individual customers who will take this product into their homes and lives. Having a clear vision of what your customers value helps you to create a purpose-driven organization. This kind of clarity, Conant points out, will help the business perform better—especially during turbulent times.

Focusing on purpose doesn’t mean sacrificing performance

At the outset of Collis’s CEO tenure, he was skeptical of putting too much focus on becoming a purpose-driven organization. Conant acknowledges that others may have shared Collis’s skepticism because ABC had limited financial flexibility at the time: “In that kind of environment, you tend focus on just doing the work more effectively and efficiently . . . in order to survive.”

While Collis was initially worried that focusing on purpose would overwhelm the company’s other important initiatives, his colleagues pushed to make purpose a priority and he came to see its true importance: “I think it went part and parcel with the growth of the foundation,” and “it went with the growth of the company… to think about ourselves in much broader terms.”

Conant witnessed how a more sweeping approach allowed AmerisourceBergen to “broaden their contribution profile… and create a little flexibility that enabled them to reimagine” the business, which led to great success. Both panelists emphasize that purpose-driven companies are faring better than the companies that don’t have a purpose-driven platform, especially during the pandemic. And the sooner you start, the better. Prior to the pandemic, Collis had already built a foundation of trust with employees which allowed them to become more easily united when pandemonium struck the globe.

As the pandemic upended life and work, Collis credits a strong purpose for helping ABC face the difficulties of being a wholesale health company during a worldwide crisis. He proudly shares that in the early stages of the pandemic, “every one of the emergency use authorization products in the United States was managed through a partnership that was administered by AmerisourceBergen. And why? It’s because we live that purpose” of transforming healthcare and helping people. The company’s focus on purpose didn’t detract from their performance, it enhanced their performance during difficult circumstances.

Conant describes this as the “evolution of purpose”—when purpose goes beyond trite sayings or company mottos and becomes an ingrained part of a company’s fabric, which leads to better outcomes.

With this evolved purpose, ABC has expanded their company’s charitable focus by creating a foundation that provides millions in grant money each year, centers on targeted causes such as vaccine education and distribution, and provides disaster relief in countries throughout the world. Collis shares, we “were very much influenced by what was the best for the patients that we ultimately serve, including communities and society.” With purpose as their north star, they were able to grow their performance and start contributing to society in new ways.

People respond to purpose

According to Conant, being purpose-driven is not only good for company outcomes—it’s also good for employees. People respond to purpose-driven programs because they want to feel that the work that they’re doing matters. He says, “people hunger to help build a better world while they’re doing their day-to-day job . . . most employees are either working or thinking about work almost more than anything else in their lives—including their families. And they want that to be a special experience. They want to feel as if they’re making a difference.” It’s crucial for companies to create a platform where people feel that their contributions matter.

Collis adds that “people in large companies of scale and importance… want to hear from their leaders on matters of social conscience,” and, “they want to be comforted by their leaders.” He says that work has become an “integral” part of people’s lives, so it’s important to bring the culture of the company into the home. When this is done well, organizations tend to “have very high retention rates.”

Conant drives this point home by emphasizing that companies can combat the great resignation—a phenomenon wherein millions left their jobs over the last year and a half—by focusing on employee well-being. He relates it to Stephen Covey’s concept of helping employees to live, love, learn, and leave a legacy.

This requires:

  • Creating good working conditions where employees have what they need to comfortably and safely do their jobs.
  • Building an environment where employees are treated respectfully and feel valued and appreciated.
  • Providing employees with opportunities for continued learning and development.
  • Focusing on connecting employees to a higher purpose.

As Conant says, employees spend many of their waking hours at work and, “want it to count for something.” And Collis builds on this by offering some tips for helping workers feel appreciated, supported, and having their voices heard. He recommends doing things like global town halls and employee engagement surveys, which are great ways to show “that management is willing to be held accountable,” to the company’s purpose.

The team is pivotal to the success of the individual

One of the best ways to create a purpose-driven and high-performing team is to recognize the power of collaborative leadership. Conant warns: “People join a company, but they leave a manager. If the manager is not a team player… your team is at risk, as is your performance.”

Collis agrees, explaining that the day of the “imperial CEO is over. People want to see someone who rolls their sleeves up, who’s relatable, who’s not arrogant, who’s very engaged, engaged with the customers and suppliers and stakeholders, someone with a real passion for the business.” And he celebrates these traits as examples: courage, confidence, care, and strong teamwork. As CEO, Collis often defers questions to other people who have more expertise as “a strong exhibition of teamwork and of really caring about the mission,” because, “the mission is more than just your own personal ego and drive and prominence. The team is absolutely pivotal to the success of the individual.”

So how do you build a thriving team? Conant explains the three ingredients he looks for:

  1. Competence. People need to know what they are doing.
  2. Character. People need to do what they say they will do and demonstrate integrity over time.
  3. Chemistry. People need to be respectful of the group they work with and be willing to give and take as necessary.

But the most important factor in a team’s success? Both panelists agree it requires you to lead from in front with empathy. Conant explains that people don’t feel like the world has their back right now. Stakeholders need to know they’re working with leaders who support them. Corporate-speak isn’t enough. People want their leaders to walk the talk.

Collis says a tangible way to show empathy is to spend quality time with the people in your company. He loves to meet team members from all over the world: “People want to see that you have an interest in them, an interest in their customers.” Being on the ground and showing genuine concern helps others feel valued.

Conant says this echoes Tom Peters and Bob Waterman’s “manage by wandering around” leadership style which advocates walking the hallways and connecting with people, “modeling the kind of collaborative behavior” that builds winning cultures. This behavior builds an authentic bridge between “your experience and the experience of the people you’re working with.” When you establish a platform of empathy surrounding your work, it’s easier for that platform to extend to things beyond work.

‘Am I providing value every day?’

Collis offers some final advice: Leading with empathy and purpose is easier when you are invested. He says, “Find something that you’re passionate about. Find an organization that you believe in.” And he adds, “I think sometimes taking the path least well-trodden is good career advice.” When you reflect on what drives you, it becomes easier to choose a career that connects to your purpose.

Personally, Collis stays aligned with his purpose by asking himself, “Am I providing value every day? Are we providing value every day?” The question helps him move forward with clarity and with a more “innovative mindset,” that charts the course for the present and the future.

Conant and Collis are unanimous: It pays to examine how connected you, your team, and your organization are to your purpose. When you lead with empathy and create strong, effective, and purpose-driven teams, you’ll see the benefits ripple throughout your organization.

About the Author: McKinlee Covey is an educator, coach, and co-author with Stephen M.R. Covey of the WSJ bestseller, Trust & Inspire.

Enjoyed these insights?

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(Header Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash)

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