Seeing the bigger picture

One of the key themes that I explored in my interview with Gina Hayden for her book on Conscious Leadership was around the definition of success, which guides a leader’s vision and objectives.  As an example, I talked to Gina about my role in founding and leading PwC UK’s Africa Business Group.  For me that was much more than winning profitable work in Africa.  My vision for it included:

  • creating PwC jobs locally to build capability rather than just flying people in,
  • engaging PwC’s African diaspora UK (who don’t always feel fully valued) to give them the chance to use their knowledge and networks in Africa,
  • linking our mentoring of African diaspora students at local community schools and universities to work experience in the Africa Business Group and recruitment,
  • focusing on winning work in industries that would generate economic benefits for African peoples (as opposed to natural resource projects which often don’t do that)

So in the process of building our profits from work in Africa I also built in diversity, community, recruitment, sustainability and staff engagement objectives.  It is not just about “what” you achieve but “how” you do it and the wider implications and knock-on effects of your work.

Defining success is modern life is more complex than ever. In the past captains of industry solely focused on generating profit.  Environmental, social and other externalities were of limited interest.  Labour was an expendable input and governments would pick up the tab for welfare payments if firm’s cut staff. Businesses would try to avoid fines for bad behaviour (breaking rules or creating incidents such as oil spillages) and manage any bad publicity.

These days, social and conventional media make life harder for organisations to manage their reputation. I remember about ten years ago Mrs Thatcher’s former PR adviser remarking to me that in when she was in power it was possible to control 80% of what was said about your client.  Even in 2005, years before Twitter, he said this had reduced to 20% and it must be even less now. Business leaders have to answer uncomfortable questions such as:

  • Why do you think zer0-hour contracts are acceptable and why don’t you pay the living wage?
  • How can you justify the CEO being paid 100 times that of the average employee
  • Why is your tax bill only 5% of your enormous profits?
  • What are the environmental consequences of your factories in terms of pollution?
  • How safe is your off-shored manufacturing facility and is child labour used there?

It is not just activists on Twitter wanting to know the answers to these questions but the staff, customers and shareholders of organisations.  People want to be proud to work for their firms and buy traceable products that don’t have dodgy provenances. Greater levels of integrity and transparency are expected from firms some of which face fundamental, even existential questions (the tobacco industry for example).  They must reconcile the competing demands and expectations of its stakeholders and recognise the true costs of the operation while defining their purpose.  PwC, for example, describes its purpose as “Building trust in society and solving complex problems”.  This is a good general description what PwC’s assurance and advisory services are for, but it ratchets up the pressure to avoid audit failures and raises questions about the moral position of advice on tax avoidance.  Long-term success now depends on moral judgements around what is legitimate behaviour.  There are many shades of grey here and a Conscious Leader must engage with their many stakeholders and at the same time craft a purpose and vision that works for staff, customers, governments, the communities in which they are based and even the planet as a whole.

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