Should business be thinking beyond profits and the bottom line?

The events of recent years, culminating in the 2008-09 financial crisis, have raised questions regarding the role of the private sector and the economic foundations of our society. Large businesses, and above all financial institutions, have rightly been criticised for being too focused on making short-term, self-serving, and aggressing decisions. We sometimes forgot what our role in society should be and who we existed to serve, defining ‘success’ in narrow profitability terms.

The mistakes of our recent past have been costly and have highlighted the need for change. This is particularly critical in the current environment, where we face multiple and increasingly complex challenges, including rising youth unemployment and underemployment, falling living standards, a fragile economic recovery, and an ageing population. It is time for all stakeholders in society, starting from the private sector, to live up to our potential as a force for good.

An important step in this journey is cultural transformation and, with that, a commitment to doing business in the right way. The excesses that led to the financial crash illustrate the importance of behaving responsibly and having a long-term, sustainable vision. At Barclays, we are working hard to build a Values-based organisation – led by a common Purpose and set of behaviours, and measured against a Balanced Scorecard framework that considers the needs of our primary stakeholders. There is clearly no silver bullet that applies universally, and business leaders will no doubt have many ideas regarding the best approach. All that matters is for us to begin moving in the right direction.

“We sometimes forgot what our role in society should be and who we existed to serve, defining ‘success’ in narrow profitability terms.”

At the same time, we need to weigh the impact of our decisions on the communities in which we operate, and identify areas where we can serve as a catalyst for growth and prosperity. We must align social considerations with commercial imperatives and put our collective creative power to good use in designing solutions that drive benefits to society whilst contributing to our bottom line.

From a financial sector perspective, we can boost the growth engines of our economy by facilitating SME financing and helping enterprises along their lifecycle. We can drive financial literacy and help people make the best possible long-term decisions. We can create a more inclusive economy, deploying banking infrastructure that is tailored for disabled customers, as well as helping educate our client base on how to maximise the full potential of digital technologies.

Almost six years on from the start of the last crisis, I am seeing signs that business leaders in various industries are starting to engage with society in the right way – with a view towards building durable and inclusive success. But there is still much work to do and it is critical for us to foster a constructive dialogue to determine which practical changes are needed in order to turn this ambition into reality. I am confident that The Great Business Debate will be a fantastic platform to kick-start this conversation – to share the lessons from our recent past, and begin to re-build confidence in business. I look forward to seeing what we can come up with together.

Antony Jenkins is Group Chief Executive of Barclays where he started his career. He moved to Citigroup before re-joining Barclays as Chief Executive of Barclaycard.

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