Beyond the bottom line at Davos

1/20/2017 11:30 AM CET

The World Economic Forum motto – Committed to improving the state of the world – is well aligned with Skanska's purpose: to build for a better society. Both go beyond financial concerns. Here, Skanska CEO Johan Karlström shares some reflections on this important topic from this year’s World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

The exterior of the Congress Centre in DavosImage: World Economic Forum/Ciaran McCrickard

I attended a session here in Davos headlined "Creating Profit through Purpose," where a number of global business leaders discussed how businesses do better when they focus on something more than just financial gain. This is something very close to Skanska and our business plan Profit with Purpose.

What makes a company good?

To have a purpose beyond the bottom line is the best motivator for people in a company, and it attracts new talent. This isn’t strange because people want to work for a company where they are connected to the purpose and make a meaningful contribution. And by this, we do not mean just charity. The purpose needs to be inherent in everything we do, and built into how we operate. Mark Weinberger, CEO of Ernst & Young,  described it well: "It's not an initiative, it's a culture and it has to bubble up from the bottom."

Walking the talk

Davos attendees are constantly reminded – as Mark Weinberger pointed out – that profit with purpose cannot be only talk and no action. Often companies can go too far in communicating their purpose rather than practicing it. Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO of Chobani, made a remark on the situation companies  may find themselves in if, in five years' time the big purpose-driven brands of the world don’t deliver on their promises. Trust and authenticity are at stake. This is something I think about daily.

A participant sits underneath John Grade’s artwork, Middle Fork, in the Congress Centre in Davos
Image: World Economic Forum/Mattias Nutt

Going forward

With culture change there must also be a conversation change, and that starts with how we talk about business success. For the most part, businesses are measured on their financials like profit and shareholder return. Now, we need a way to measure purpose and the social value of that purpose. Partly to be able to benchmark but also to make sure we deliver on our promises and it becomes an integrated part of operations. This is something we at Skanska need to work with going forward. 

It's humbling to see that Skanska is on the right track, and that other big organizations are working toward society-driven objectives also. This is something we must continually work toward and be conscious of because as times evolve, businesses will be held more accountable than ever. United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May's remark in her address at Davos today echoed this: "It is essential for business to demonstrate leadership, to show that in this globalized world, everyone is playing by the same rules and that the benefits of economic success are there for all our citizens."