We’re all different, with diverse backgrounds and experiences that influence how we see the world. These different experiences allow us to see the same issue from several perspectives and it’s just as well since it is an essential part of understanding others and our impact on them.
When it comes to business, I have a few different perspectives of my own: my father had a small business, I’ve spent most of my career in the public sector, I now work for a large business(which is a CBI member and I’m involved in some of the CBI’s work), and I’m a consumer, taxpayer, and Father. Even with these different perspectives, I don’t necessarily see all the angles, and this means communication is vitally important. Business shouldn’t assume that its mission and decisions are self-evident. It must explain what it does and listen to others’ views on how it should operate and what it should offer.
So here are my three very simple points for a successful conversation between business and society.
- Don’t be shy about stating the basics.
Businesses create and deliver great products and services: electricity, cars, mobile phones, ATMs, streaming music. Only businesses can do all those things. To get the range, quality, and innovation that our modern society demands we need both small and large businesses. Take the car industry: many small companies make components, but – with a few exceptions– you can’t imagine a small firm making a family car.
Now on to how business works. To produce something, you need to invest money. No one will give it to you unless you can offer the prospect of a decent return, which means that to get the investment the business has to be likely to make money. When we judge what a reasonable profit is for a business to make, we have to compare it not only with the price the consumer pays, but also with the money which has been invested. We need to explain we won’t get any new products if someone isn’t prepared to take the risk and invest in the business.
If you’re in business, this is all obvious. But how often does it come across in the media? If we want people to understand, we have to explain it better.
- Get into a conversation about how business performs
When I was young, the term “businessman” (it was usually a man in those days…) was supposed to encourage respect and consideration. Today, there isn’t much respect about, and sometimes business has only itself to blame. But a bad doctor doesn’t discredit medicine, and a bad teacher doesn’t mean that we question the need for schools. If business is to repair its reputation, it needs to listen to what society expects of it, respond where it can, and explain where it believes it is being misunderstood.
There’s a great deal being said and written about how business should behave and what values it should stand by. It probably doesn’t matter which approach you choose, as long as you believe in it and live by it, even when there’s a cost. My take, for what it’s worth, is simple:
- Use concrete language: instead of talking about “integrity” (can you really define it?), make clear commitments to real people. For example, “we will always make amends if our products do not meet expectations”, or “we will never sell a service which the customer doesn’t need”
- Make sure your values are credible both to your employees and other stakeholders. Treat your mission statement like a job description, specifying accountabilities towards your stakeholders (customers, employees, and the community)
- Acknowledge your position in the global context
Once almost all business was local. Tradesmen lived in their village and knew their customers, suppliers and employees like their own families. The pressure of close relationships and the speed with which reputations travelled through the village would have broadly maintained order.
Industrialisation brought with it anonymity and then globalisation, radically changing the balance of power. Today, communications and social media have turned the tables again. Reputations are lost in the time it takes to send a Tweet.
The speed of change can be overwhelming. Paradoxically, this transformation calls for a return to the best values of the village, but on a global scale. And perhaps the most important of all is where we started – keep it simple: be honest, be open and behave naturally, just as though every customer employee and stakeholder were a neighbour.
What’s your view? Simple and logical, or simplistic and naive? What kinds of business do you find most authentic?