A Conversation with Lorna Davis About Social Impact: Dancing With Purpose, Power, and Love

By Tanea Jackson

Lorna Davis grew up in the 1960’s during the apartheid era in South Africa. With government-run newspapers and no television until 1976, Davis was curious to understand how she related to the rest of the world.

“I was just so hungry to see what the rest of the world had to offer, and so the first chance I got, I wanted to get out and experience the world,”

said Davis.

In her lifetime, Davis has lived in seven countries and has moved internationally 12 times. She believes that her physical movement around the world has defined many parts of her life.

“My hunger to see who was running the world drove me to all of this moving,” said Davis. “And I think now that’s maybe one of the most useful characteristics that I have. Because having lived in seven distinct countries, I understand that everyone’s perspective has value, and I’m always trying to understand where people are coming from, which I think helps me a lot as a leader.”

As the former CEO of DanoneWave, she is currently an advisor to Danone North America, and a Global Ambassador for B Lab, the nonprofit organization that serves the global movement of people using business as a force for good. Now that she no longer has the demanding role of a CEO, she has slowed down to invest her time into one of her passions: working with B Lab and big companies to identify how they can be participants in the Purpose Economy.

And for Davis, this is part of her purpose.

Purpose is the reason why each of us is here, the reason why we exist.

More than ever, we are all trying to do something that’s bigger than ourselves – whether it’s fighting to change the conditions of traditionally underserved groups, to better understand and connect with people who are not like us, or to use our voices to challenge the status quo. But what does it take to achieve purpose? To achieve purpose, we must have a strong will-power that pushes us out of our comfort zone.

To Davis, there is no better way to step out of your personal comfort zone, to broaden your life, or even your perspective, than to move.

“I would say my views about moving are not just about countries. I would like to say to the people in the U.S. that if you live on a coast, spend a year in Kentucky or Alabama,” commented Davis. “And I would like to say to people who come from wealthy backgrounds, if you went to undergrad at Princeton, or at some fancy college within Laureate, spend some time where people struggle to put food on the table, because there is nothing like seeing things through the eyes of other people. And you don’t have to make it big and fancy,” continued Davis. “Spend some time building a house for somebody through Habitat for Humanity, or work at a gas station in your hometown because you’re going to see and experience things that you wouldn’t have before.”

And for Davis, it was her experience in China that ripped her out of her comfort zone. She moved to China as a CEO of Danone, but as a non-Chinese speaking white person, she had to heavily depend on the native people for everything including language. Her sense of trust was challenged—her trust in herself and her trust in others.

“I realized that I couldn’t survive in this environment unless I threw myself into it. So, I wrote on the top of my goals for that year, which was 2007…let China touch me. And I jumped off the cliff, and it changed me,”

said Davis.

And as for companies, Davis doesn’t think that not having purpose is an option.

“I don’t think it’s a choice. I think there are three reasons [to be a purposeful company]: because it’s the right thing to do, because it’s a source of competitive advantage, and if you don’t do it now, other people will, and you will be left behind,” said Davis. “And for me, having purpose in your business is like choosing love in your home. Why would you have a house that doesn’t have love? Why would you have a business that doesn’t have purpose?” continued Davis. “And you better get with the program because young people under 35 will not work for big companies if they don’t have purpose…why would they?”

added Davis.

Davis carries a strong opinion that the present shouldn’t be in the hands of the older generation, the current Baby Boomers, who as Davis put it, “have no idea what’s going on.” But rather, companies around the world should be in the hands of the younger generations – the Gen Xers and the Millennials because they have a better pulse on what’s going on in society, and are willing to change the traditional ways in which things have been done. Davis suggests that companies should seek out people who can teach us more about purpose, and in general, she believes that it lies in the hearts and minds of young people.

“The thing about purpose and business in my view, is that there’s an old-fashioned notion that the people at the top are supposed to know what to do. It’s a ridiculous idea. The people at the bottom know what to do – and I experienced it first-hand during Danone North America’s B Corp certification process,”

said Davis.

Davis recalls that when they officially announced their plans to become a Public Benefit Corporation and a certified B Corp, there were gasps in the room. But, the gasps didn’t come from the powerful people, the gasps came from the young people in the back of the room who immediately raised their hands to be included in the process.

But to ensure that young people are prepared to lead, Davis wants to challenge every current leader to invest in young people and provide them opportunities to get really good at three things – public speaking, leading in multiple scenarios, and at what she likes to call, maneuvering between altitudes. The altitudes consist of three levels: doing tactical work (getting things done), building strong relationships, and being strategic. Becoming comfortable and good at operating at each of the levels is where success lies.

There continues to be this dance, the dance of purpose between power and love that isn’t discussed in business. One of Davis’s goals is to really push the envelope on how people view the relationship between power and love in business, because the relationship exists, it’s necessary, and it cannot be denied.

“The sort of curiosity of trying to figure purpose out is what I really like about the whole journey. Because once you start on the journey – and again, I think my metaphor about love is not a bad one, if you decide that you want a loving home, there’s no prescription that someone can give you, there’s no set of Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) that someone can tick off. But once you have that intention to be purposeful, you keep your heart open, you experiment with some things, and you learn as you go – gradually your home becomes more loving. Unfortunately, love isn’t a language that is talked about much in work, and it’s a pity because it exists. And purpose is really the same,”

said Davis.

Davis then goes on to say that in order to shift the conversation so that people understand the necessity of purpose, you have to learn to connect with them personally, which can be done through the thing that connects us all: family. When she’s speaking with business executives who are strong on the muscle of power language, she is intentional about shifting the conversation to talk about love. She refers to their children – because as all parents know, the relationship-building with your children is not only a hard task, but it’s a very interesting dance of power and love.

When you access that part of people that allows them to understand the importance of bringing their whole selves to work, what Davis describes as “not separating from yourself,” you’ve unlocked the power and love dynamic that translates into decision making and the ways of working in the new world. When we unlock the power and love dynamic, we will have cracked the code of inclusion, the appropriate dispersion of power, and the power of diversity when it comes to decision making in a way that makes sense no matter what company you’re in.

As Davis continues her purpose journey, in this next phase of her life, she’s committed to helping B Lab maintain the integrity and the purity of their system, and trying to find a way for the B Corp Certification to be inclusive, yet exclusive at the same time.

“The reality is that B Corp certification is so difficult that the vast majority of big companies would never become a B Corp. It’s just too hard, and that’s OK. What we want for them is to be on the journey, and what we want is for them to start asking themselves the kinds of questions that are included in the assessment. I want to find a way to help organizations who want to be on the journey, but not necessarily go through the [formal] B Corp certification,”

Davis said.

And as the dance between purpose, power, and love continues, we cannot forget the wisdom and lessons that live within our own experiences. Throughout her journey, Davis has encountered mentors at every stage of her life who have helped guide her with positive reinforcement, constructive feedback, and the wisdom in slowing down.

“I don’t care what you call it, meditation, following your breath, praying, but be quiet for 20 minutes per day and listen to yourself. Slow down and allow life to come to you – you don’t have to conquer life, let life be your partner,”

said Davis.