My Journey: To Be a Socially Smarter CEO

— Melissa Waggener Zorkin 

I’ve just wrapped up a series of events this week that has got me thinking about what it means for a CEO to be a great leader. That used to be a pretty easy question to answer. You could survey someone’s investors or look at his or her (and usually his) balance sheets; or, if you wanted to take a broader view, you could rely on your old hardcopy books by Andy Grove or other leadership books to tell you what qualities really mattered. Either way, the math was pretty simple.

Not anymore. Of the first 25 people on this year’s World’s Greatest Leaders list in Fortune, just five are CEOs. This tells us a lot about the quality of leadership in nonprofits, the arts, and governments and NGOs around the world; it also tells us a lot about what a challenge it is to be a great CEO in the 21st century. The old paradigm isn’t working any longer. These days, Fortune reports, “it isn’t enough to be accomplished, brilliant, or admirable.” Today’s greatest leaders are doing more: They’re “inspiring others to act, to follow them on a worthy quest.”  

For those of us who aspire to be great MODERN leaders, this forces us to ask all sorts of questions that weren’t on our radar before. How do we know if we’re making an impact? How should we measure our success? And how can we inspire others to join us as we swap business as usual for something bigger and better?

These days, the trendy answer (in addition to Empathy) has the word “social” in it. Social good, social enterprise, social entrepreneurship, social innovation, social responsibility — these are the buzzwords that companies use when they’re doing more than just fattening shareholders’ wallets. But what do they really mean? And what does it look like when they’re more than just buzzwords — when, instead, they’re our “worthy quest,” the principle that animates everything we do?

At first, for many companies, social awareness meant check-writing, employee volunteer days and matching-gift programs. Today, it can mean much more — but only if we fight every day to make it so.

In the early days of my company, I too thought that addressing big world problems and caring for my company were mostly separate concerns. WE (then Waggener Edstrom Worldwide) always donated a sizable chunk of our profits to charity, we matched employees’ donations, and we sponsored two volunteer days every year. We run our business with strong corporate citizenship goals. But at that point, our good citizenship was a habit, but not intrinsic yet, to all of our business decisions — it wasn’t yet who we were.

As a CEO we have many choices of how to spend our pro bono time, so in 2006 I joined the board of Mercy Corps, the Portland-based international development and relief organization. Today, among many other things, it’s helping to bring food, water and education to Syrian refugees and investing in tech-enabled startups to build livelihoods through a social ventures program. 


The great conviction and focus on addressing the world problems that I saw Mercy Corps passionately do every waking minute is certainly something a business cannot replicate. So, I decided to partner with Mercy Corps as my execution engine because it is the best at what it does. And if you look now, in the business world today, you are seeing amazing, sometimes counter-intuitive, partnerships where the sum of the parts (business, NGO, government/civic) produces powerful outcomes, and together they can make a bigger difference than if they did it alone. And the impact of businesses contributing in this way is good for their bottom-line success, according to new research commissioned by WE Communications and conducted by YouGov on sustainable purpose/sustainable profits. And being in the field with Mercy Corps, from Uganda to the West Bank, reinforced for me the fundamental truth that our business of communications, i.e., powerful storytelling, sits at the center of telling the world what’s going on and what needs to be done and, most important, why we have to act.

social good

This is a powerful reinforcement of the difference companies can make when they take the time to focus their energies and innovation toward their chosen area of world concern. I firmly believe that the power of creative, innovative communication must move people to action in ways they’ve never been moved before.

This is how my passion for transformative communication became my, and my company’s, “worthy quest.” To be successful at this, do I need to be a genius grant-winning civil rights activist? Do I need to go into politics and become a world leader? Do I need to become a Nobel Prize-winning freedom fighter? No. I’m not a prime minister or a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. I’m not Bono. But I do know Fortune is right: A great CEO is someone who looks beyond the bottom line, who thinks holistically about the world and the place of her business in it, and who asks: “To what end?” To me, that’s the most important question of all.