Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire. His columns appear on Wednesday.

RALEIGH – In 2021, great leadership will rest on the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. You’ve probably heard of this idea already. It’s often called the triple bottom line, TBL, 3BL or the 3Ps. Invented in 1994 by serial entrepreneur John Elkington, the triple bottom line urges corporate leaders to look for more holistic measurements of failure and success. It asks us to consider the full cost of doing business and align our organizational strategies toward positive, simultaneous social, environmental and economic impact. 

A couple years ago, Elkington placed a sort of manufacturer’s recall on the idea, admitting his frustration with its failure in an article for Harvard Business Review. “It was supposed to provoke deeper thinking about capitalism and its future,” he says “but many early adopters understood the concept as a balancing act, adopting a trade-off mentality.” 

As Elkington explains it, “TBL’s stated goal from the outset was system change — pushing toward the transformation of capitalism. It was never supposed to be just an accounting system.” Elkington notes that some global corporations have done well with the 3P, but the vast majority of businesses have not. 

It’s time for all of us to get on board. As a framework for strength and true sustainability, the triple bottom line is now more relevant than ever. It means coming to terms with our corporate power, cultivating a dynamic corporate culture and using our influence to affect positive change across all areas of impact. “Companies that are strong and resilient will be better placed to survive and prosper,” says a recent report from McKinsey, “Those are qualities that can’t be taken for granted; they need to be cultivated.” 

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So, what are the moves you can make right now to grow and strengthen your triple bottom line?

C-suite executives must discrown revenue as the single greatest measure of success and, instead, work toward greater corporate ethics and social responsibility. To keep our businesses strong and viable, we must make positive, decisive actions that change the world to be more inclusive, more sustainable, and more humane. That means embracing stakeholder capitalism and understanding that a truly successful business serves more than just its own bottom line — no matter how big or small you are, no matter what sector or industry you’re in.

Write a plan

Seriously, I cannot emphasize this enough. Write down what you want from next year and organize your resources to support your goals. The brutal truth is that most organizations don’t have a formal business plan, marketing plan or succession strategy, according to a recent article from Forbes. Take the time to name your intentions and write down SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timebound) that define how you will impact people, planet, and profit. Share your strategy with all your stakeholders and encourage them to hold the company accountable.

Invest in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)

The business case for diversity and inclusion grows stronger every year. Companies that have successful DEI initiatives show higher revenue, greater innovation, stronger decision making, and better employee retention. Create an open and inclusive culture that encourages everyone to bring their full, authentic selves to work. My recent white paper, released last week, will help you build an actionable strategy for DEI success in 2021: A 5-Step Roadmap to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

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Cultivate innovation 

As 2020 has repeatedly shown, our potential for success hinges on our capacity to pivot and innovate faster than ever. Look for ways to speed up decision making and increase procedural efficiency. Create a culture of learning agility that encourages nimble, energetic thinking and rewards your team for bringing their best ideas to the table. 

Consider your full human impact

Partner with local nonprofits and charities that make a positive impact in your community. Give your employees paid time off to volunteer. Examine your own supplier diversity. Insist on humane conditions, fair wages and a triple bottom line impact in the companies you work with. Consider how you might work to support the employees segments who have been hardest hit this year. That includes parents of small children, caretakers and women, who are leaving the workforce en masse according to Women in the Workplace 2020.

Take the green lead

It’s time to make big moves for the planet. For too long, it has been far too easy to excuse our own environmental impact and shift responsibility to the end-consumer. The good news is that green initiatives are more convenient and more accessible than ever. Print only what is absolutely essential, buy used or refurbished supplies and furniture, use green-certified office products, rethink your packaging, and insist on sustainable practices within your supply chain. If you don’t know how to start, consider taking a course in corporate sustainability. 

Double down on digital

2020 has accelerated the digital transformation that we thought would take a decade. Look for ways to further digitize your process, procedures, services and products. When digital transformation is done successfully, it often has a positive impact on all three parts of the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit. 

As you build your strategy and budget for 2021, it is your leadership responsibility to consider the full impact and opportunities of your business decisions. Set some goals that are easily achievable and some that force you to reach farther than you can grasp. The point is to keep driving for a truly sustainable future, one in which success relies not only on finance but on the ways we can improve our environment and our society. 


With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, Donald Thompson is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth. He is a serial entrepreneur, Certified Diversity Executive, CEO of Walk West, the fastest-growing digital marketing agency in NC, and co-founder of The Diversity Movement, a data-driven Diversity, Equity and Inclusion consultancy. His new white paper, A 5-Step Roadmap to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, was released last week. A member of the National Speakers Association, Donald speaks frequently for businesses, organizations and universities and shares actionable insights and strategies across key functions of business strategy, entrepreneurship, leadership development, and diversity and inclusion in the workplace.  To learn more, follow Donald on LinkedIn or visit donaldthompson.com.