7 Must-Read Books for the Stakeholder Economy

Embracing stakeholder capitalism requires a big shift in mindset and massive organizational change – neither of which is easy to achieve. But a great book can help by inspiring and energizing business leaders in their daily quest to do right by their stakeholders.

Many of the books on this unconventional list also provide practical advice that can help business leaders turn their aspirations into action.

Book #1: Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change by Marc Benioff

As co-founder of Salesforce, Marc Benioff pioneered the software-as-a-service business model, earned great returns for shareholders, and became a billionaire along the way. Meanwhile, Salesforce became one of the top five most JUST companies in America, thanks to its policies toward workers, the environment, and communities.

In his new book Trailblazer, Benioff details how a 1996 pilgrimage to India helped inspire him to donate 1% of his future company’s products, equity, and staff time to philanthropy. He also describes how he discovered and pledged to address pay equity disparities.

But some of the most compelling stories relate to his activism. Benioff successfully pushed Indiana’s then-governor Mike Pence to back down on potentially anti-LGBTQ legislation after threatening to divest from the state, and hired a chief ethical and humane use officer after some employees opposed Salesforce taking on U.S. Customs and Border Protection as a customer during the migrant detention controversy.

Book #2: From Generosity to Justice: A New Gospel of Wealth by Darren Walker

Having grown up poor, black, and gay in the South, Darren Walker became a successful Wall Street lawyer before walking away to manage a nonprofit. Now the president of the $13 billion Ford Foundation, he’s both one of New York’s best-connected insiders and an outsider crusading for change. Today Walker warns that America is losing sight of the “inclusive capitalism” and “shared prosperity” that helped him get where he is today.

In his book, Walker reminds philanthropists not to mistake their power and privilege for wisdom, and argues that they instead must “transfer power back to the disempowered communities we claim to serve.” The book is available for free on the Ford Foundation’s website.

Book #3: The Good Jobs Strategy by Zeynep Ton

When it comes to treatment of workers, the environment, and communities, many of the most progressive companies are in high-margin industries such as technology and healthcare. But Zeynep Ton challenges the idea that companies in lower-margin industries like retail and convenience stores “can’t afford” to treat their workers fairly.

Ton describes how these companies can reorganize their operations in ways that justify greater investments in their employees. In the process, she tells the stories of a handful of successful companies that have engendered tremendous loyalty from workers and customers alike.

Book #4: Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken

In the face of the climate crisis, companies, policymakers, and individuals are confronting the same question: What can I do that will make the biggest and fastest impact?

Project Drawdown is a research organization that analyzes and identifies the most viable climate solutions. Edited by Paul Hawken, a leading lion of the environmental movement and himself a successful entrepreneur, Drawdown ranks the 100 most substantial solutions by carbon impact and cost.

The book leaves readers with a hopeful feeling that climate change can be slowed — if we can muster the will to implement these strategies. You can also view the solutions and rankings at the Drawdown site.

Book #5: The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World by Melinda Gates

After traveling the world and reviewing all the options, Melinda Gates concluded that the most effective way to alleviate global poverty was to help women shape their own futures. She writes about it in this book that combines frank personal memoir with passionate, data-driven argument.

Gates also relates her own role in the gender wars: fighting a male-dominated culture as a senior executive at Microsoft, enduring the abuse of a former boyfriend, and working through co-parenting with her Very Important Husband.

Gates’ own devotion to the cause is impressive. As a Forbes reviewer writes, “How many people with access to billions of dollars would sleep in a goat shed in Tanzania or discuss rape-prevention strategies with sex workers in India?”

Book #6: Mission-Driven Leadership: My Journey as a Radical Capitalist by Marc Bertolini

Bertolini endured his son’s near-fatal fight with cancer and his own near-death experience after a skiing experience before becoming CEO of health insurance giant Aetna (now part of CVS Health). The experiences helped to temper his hard-charging brand of capitalism and change his perceptions of the American health care system.

At Aetna, Bertolini was a different kind of CEO: He offered yoga and meditation to employees, raised the minimum wage and improved benefits, and told shareholders he was more interested in investing in the company’s future than in offering share buybacks.

In this book, Bertolini bemoans the loss of credibility of corporate leadership “because of our own passivity in the face of dire social problems.” He describes why he sought “a broader perspective that redefined the values of our organization” and worked to become “less righteous and more empathetic.”

Book #7: Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose by Jean Case

Jean Case and her husband Steve were trailblazers in bringing the Internet to the masses with America Online. She and her colleagues at the Case Foundation analyzed the lives of “game changers” by going back a hundred years looking for common traits.

What did they find? Wealth or privilege weren’t the common links. Instead, they set ambitious goals, made bold promises, questioned assumptions, and stepped outside their comfort zone. Case illustrates her principles with stories about Jane Goodall, John F. Kennedy, Elon Musk, the founders of AirBnB and Warby Parker, and her own experience.

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