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Business Success in the Age of Activism

Columbia UP,

15 min read
10 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

“Shapeholders” wield the power to throw your company off course, so you need an engagement strategy.

Editorial Rating



  • Innovative
  • Concrete Examples
  • Insider's Take


The power that “shapeholders” – activist groups, politicians, thought leaders, regulators, media, influencers and opinion leaders – have to affect your business is rising, yet many executives remain blind to the consequences of their influence. They focus instead on producing profits for the benefit of shareholders and stakeholders. Former US congressman Mark R. Kennedy, now president of the University of North Dakota, explains that this leaves organizations vulnerable to attack. He demonstrates that shapeholders gauge their success by how they can change corporate behavior to conform to their agendas. They advocate on behalf of society’s growing expectation that companies should make the world a better place. Kennedy provides a seven-step strategy to address the full spectrum of shapeholder expectations and demands. Although his book is somewhat verbose, getAbstract recommends Kennedy’s scholarly, well-organized text as advice from a deeply informed veteran of shapeholder battlefields.


Who Are Shapeholders?

Shapeholders are the activists, media outlets, political actors, thought leaders and regulators who strive to change corporate behavior to align with their goals. Though they have little personal stake in your organization, they greatly affect its opportunities and risks. Executives must understand the “paradox of profit”: a laser focus on profit will hurt your firm in the long term.

For example, the Arthur Andersen accounting company’s concentration on the bottom line led to it compromising the veracity of its financial reporting. The company went down with Enron when regulators uncovered its participation in concealing fraud and obstructing justice. In contrast, Starbucks gained when it responded to customers’ concerns by prioritizing its ecological responsibilities. Starbucks collaborated with the shapeholder organization Conservation International to reduce the habitat destruction that coffee production caused and to improve coffee growers’ economic prospects. Competitors such as Folgers now follow new sourcing standards to stay on par with Starbucks.


“Stick activist” groups use confrontational...

About the Author

President of the University of North Dakota Mark R. Kennedy is a former US congressman from Minnesota and a former presidential trade adviser to George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

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