Doing Well and Doing Good: The Business Community and National Service

I am the third generation of my family to run The Timberland Company. My grandfather was an immigrant to this country. A man of few words, big dreams, real values, he built boots, the same ones we market today all over the world. And he taught his sons, and they taught me, what it takes to run a business or to live a purposeful life—a commitment to humility, humanity, integrity, and excellence. These values are the cornerstone of how we now live our business life in the global economy.

At Timberland, doing well and doing good are not separate or separable efforts. Every day, everywhere, we compete in the global economy. At the center of our efforts is the premise of service, service to a truth larger than self, a demand more pressing even than this quarter’s earnings. While we are absolutely accountable to our shareholders, we also recognize and accept our responsibility to share our strength-to work, in the context of our for-profit business, for the common good. For me, service is about The Work-doing The Work, working to perfect the universe. That such an aspiration, normally housed in a faith construct, can be applied in a day-to-day business is the beauty of service for me at Timberland. I can be on mission for the shareholder and the customer and on Mission at the same time.

Understanding the role of service in perfecting the universe was not an intellectual experience for me. It was visceral. I received a letter one day, the standard, well-intended plea for charity from yet another worthy nonprofit. This one, City Year, was an urban peace corps of sorts, starting up in Boston, near where I live. The letter described 50 young people, out to save the world, lacking only boots for their feet. Would I send along the boots?

Who knows why I did or why the cofounder of City Year decided to come to my office and challenge me to spend four hours doing community service with him and a small group of young leaders near our headquarters in New Hampshire. But I sent the boots, Alan Khazei paid the visit, and I accepted the challenge to serve. And I found myself, not a mile from our headquarters, face to face with the stories you read in the newspaper, face to face with a vision for America not unlike the one that drew my grandfather to leave Russia in steerage so many years ago. I spent four hours with the corps members from City Year and some young recovering drug addicts in a group home. I painted some walls and felt the world shaking under my feet. In America? At this time of plenty? Children on drugs?

Behind my desk again, safe no longer, moved by my own sense of purpose having served, albeit briefly, all that mattered was figuring out how service could become part of daily life at Timberland. Each of the 10 of us who served that day had our own personal transformation. So we worked together to create the Path of Service.

Formally launched in 1992, the Path of Service galvanized the spirit of volunteerism and citizenship that permeates our company. It engages the skills and talents of employees to create long-term solutions for critical community needs, but also to go beyond what we do on days of service to determine how we act each day&$151;with and for shareholders, customers, employees, and communities. The Path of Service is the canvas on which our ideals and beliefs are expressed. As Marian Wright Edelman wrote, “Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.”

In 1997, we expanded the Path of Service and founded Serv-a-Palooza, an annual celebration of community and service that unites employees, vendors, community partners, and youth from our home community and 20 nations worldwide in a day of transformational service. For one full day each May, the sun never sets on Timberland employees’ service. How is that for an alternative definition of globalization? With passion, innovation, and a singular sense of purpose, Team Timberland has sought to improve our communities and the condition of those beside whom we live and work. And we have benefited. We have been given wisdom, humility, and a stronger sense of justice.

If the United States is to establish a national service agenda, however, Corporate America as a whole must take action. I recently joined a group of 17 other corporate leaders representing a variety of industries to create Businesses Strengthening America-a long-term effort to engage hundreds of America’s business leaders in helping corporations, employees, and consumers answer President Bush’s State of the Union call to service. The premise of Businesses Strengthening America is that a strong commitment to volunteering and civic responsibility serves corporate interests as well as community, national, and global needs by increasing employee productivity and employee, consumer, and shareholder loyalty.

Our company is organized around values. Not out of convenience, but out of necessity.