Jim McGrann just notched his first year as CEO of VSP, and under his leadership, the largest U.S. vision provider now insures more than 82 million people. But McGrann isn’t focused simply on the bottom-line business: He wants to help as many people as possible to see, whether they’re VSP customers or members of underserved communities.
McGrann says he’s dedicating his time at VSP’s helm to spreading the word of corporate social responsibility, challenging both VSP employees and corporations at large to step outside of the day-to-day grind and serve others. The results, he says, benefit both the world’s community and the companies themselves.
“I spent 15 years as a management consultant, and I was focused on the work versus really thinking about the impact I was having – good, bad, or indifferent,” McGrann says. “The CSR (corporate social responsibility) work allows me to go to bed every night knowing we’re in business for a good reason. Two billion people in the world don’t have proper eye care; the reason we keep the company healthy is so we can make a dent in that number.”
My would-be priest father taught me the Golden Rule
“VSP’s business model is inherently focused on community: helping people see. Improving life for as many people as possible. If I think through my own life and what my parents taught me, it comes down to the Golden Rule. You want a successful, strong company with happy employees, but to what end? To care for your customers and make as many lives better as possible.
My dad was going to be a priest, but instead when he came back from Korea he worked at Blue Cross. He wanted to help people, and he loved it. But this was before the company went public, and as the company changed to focus on the bottom line rather than helping people, I saw a change in him too. He wasn’t as happy.
By contrast, when you make CSR a priority like we’ve done at VSP, employees get to go serve communities. They’re reminded why we do what we do. And you’ll never see a more energized person than the employee who comes back into the office after a day of serving. When you’re doing true CSR you’re not doing it selfishly, but honestly, the company reaps a lot of benefit too. Your employees are happy, engaged, excited, and focused on the true goal.”
CSR is everyone’s responsibility
“All companies have a responsibility to do social good, regardless of size or industry. Whether a company has three employees or 300,000, the benefits that CSR provides have a big effect internally and externally. If you’re a small shop, maybe you encourage your three employees one day a year to volunteer at a soup kitchen. Even at that scale the employees feel more engaged and happier, and they’re helping the community.”
My favorite social-good projects
“Service was always at the core of VSP, but Hurricane Katrina was what moved social responsibility to the forefront of the company’s culture. VSP didn’t stand still; they built mobile clinics to go out and help this community that had been devastated. Out of this the VSP’s mobilized service was born, and three mobile clinics travel the country to bring eye care to underserved areas.
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We were able to do that for kids attending a soccer camp through Nike, for whom we do all of the eyewear, and basketball camps in the summer with local professional teams like the Sacramento Kings. We were able to give the kids eye exams and make glasses on the spot with the mobile clinics, which is so important because one in four schoolchildren has an undetected vision problem. The kids come out and say, ‘Wow! I can see the color and detail of the leaves!’ It’s so motivating. That’s a big life change for them. Meanwhile, we’re able to get the message out that an annual eye exam is so important.
Maybe the most incredible experience for me was just a few weeks ago, when I traveled to northwestern Spain to join Bill Barkeley, a deaf-blind adventurer, for the final week of his hike along the Camino de Santiago. Bill did the full 400-mile journey to raise awareness and funds for Usher’s Syndrome [a rare disorder that causes hearing loss and vision loss that worsens over time]. I joined him for 71 miles, and it’s an experience that’s hard to put into words. He is just incredible – superhuman. A few employees joined, too, and walking alongside them for about eight hours a day you learn a lot that you wouldn’t hear during a formal meeting in the office.”
The one question he asks all interviewees
“Oh, I love this one: I tell people: ‘We’ve all had multiple jobs, and there are always things you loved and things you hated. Give me a couple of each.’ And then I have them design their perfect job. It’s very telling; they really get into it. And sometimes they’ll describe a job that’s nothing like the position they applied for – or their list of hated responsibilities matches what they’re interviewing for! It shows that when you ask in a certain way, people will be honest.”
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Corporations shouldn’t be vilified wholesale
“You listen to the current political climate, and there’s almost this vilifying of corporations. To be clear, some companies have done bad things. But when I hear politicians say, ‘I’m going to take corporations down!’ as a general statement, well, I’m not sure that’s the way to go. Because companies, if they do things right, can be lifeblood of this country as the providers of jobs and the creators of important social initiatives.
But those initiatives can’t be greedy or self-serving for the company. It goes back to treating people the way you want to be treated. It’s so easy to get stuck in the thinking of ‘how do we make next quarter’s sales goals’ and ‘how are we doing on Wall Street,’ and we end up missing the big picture. There’s much more out there in life.”