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Brexit - why business lost its voice and how to restore it

On a large turnout, but narrow margins the UK has voted to leave the EU. All around the business world decision makers are meeting to make sense of the impact. The seriousness of the implications cannot be taken lightly. And yet there is a need to be imaginative and constructive at this pivotal time. The great thing about entrepreneurs is that they adapt fast and they find opportunities in any problem. Where are the opportunities for UK Business? I can see at least two. One is about connecting better, especially through the kind of behaviour that servant leaders exemplify. The other is about shared hazard and shared reward in the common stewardship of the assets with which we are entrusted. Do these two things better, and we could change the country’s mood towards business and its decision-making. In a later blog I will come back to the theme of shared hazard and shared reward. In this blog I will talk about connecting better. Connecting better Think first about the mood which, we are told, underlies the decision. Anger with bankers and over paid CEOs. Dissatisfaction with zero hours contracts. A strong feeling that ordinary people are still paying for the banking crash in poor wages and reduced public services, no similar discomfort has reached those in high places. Politics aside, a vote to leave is in some ways a classic example of what happens when business fails to take responsibility for their impact on society. The fact that when reputable companies tried to intervene in the debate their views were dismissed as somehow not legitimate is a sign that the overall licence to operate of business is poor. This makes it more important than ever that individually, companies connect with their employees and their other stakeholders to collectively show by the way they act that they are a force for good in society. As Ronan Dunne, CEO of O2 Telefónica UK said this morning “we have failed our citizens rather than them failing us”. Tomorrow’s Company’s role, to inspire and enable business to be a force for good in society, is now more important than ever. What would change that anger? I was talking only this week with a senior manager in one major retailer who told me about focus groups they had been running with their customers. The customers told them that they wanted to be assured that the company cared for its employees, was vigilant about labour conditions in its supply chain, and refused to do animal testing. At the end of the session one of the managers told the group about the company’s carefully worked out policies on employee wellbeing, and supply chain standards. He added that they had done no animal testing for well over a decade and received a standing ovation from this group! The company had been doing the right thing for years, but the customers didn’t know. There are many standing ovations to be earned by the best of our companies. They will only be achieved if the leaders of those companies cut down on the spin. Promise less and deliver more. Explain about the dilemmas, as Centrica and the other energy companies have done in talking about a ‘trilemma’ where the demand for low prices clashes with the need for action on carbon impacts and investment in the future. It’s partly about what companies do but it’s also about how they communicate. People want companies to be authentic, not phoney. And they want the actions to match the words. I talked to a manager in another company this week who described the impact a new CEO had few years back. His words were impressive. But what really impressed my friend was his actions. His predecessor had been chauffeur-driven in a top-of-the range BMW. The successor had a VW Golf and appeared on company sites driving himself. There has never been a better time for businesses, especially larger businesses, to show by example that they are worthy of trust, that their leaders do care, and are in touch; that they are a force for good. To do so effectively, those in charge need to avoid the impression that they are aloof, distant, and living in a bubble of their own. Business leaders need to connect with the real feelings of their people and other stakeholders.

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