No more hiding from it: Business leaders are societal leaders

UCT GSB's Timothy London looks at what works and doesn't work if leaders are to ensure relevance.

For a long time, business leaders were able to hide behind mantras like “it’s not personal, it’s business” and “maximise shareholder value” when operating in situations where society was changing or demanding more from powerful people and organisations. This attempt to carve out a slightly protected space – connected to, but also somehow less responsible for, the rest of society – has come under increasing strain over the last few years. 

Various movements, spanning social and political boundaries, have made it clear that not only is the status quo not acceptable, but significant changes need to be made immediately: #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, #MeToo, and #BlackLivesMatter just in the last few years have led to significant changes in the way institutions work. The pressures of climate change and dealing with the impacts of Covid-19 are similarly important debates in society that business leaders simply cannot extricate themselves from and stay relevant.

Various businesses and leaders have handled these issues in different ways, some better than others. Without putting any particular person or brand to the fire, it is valuable to examine some themes that have emerged in the last few months to hopefully equip leaders and future leaders to examine and improve their own practices. #BlackLivesMatter will not be the last societal movement to put business leaders on the spot; we have to look at what works and doesn’t work if leaders are to ensure they can keep themselves and their organisations relevant in changing times.

What Doesn’t Work

Firstly, denying the reality that people in your organisation do not bring their personal perspectives and experiences through the office doors is a recipe for disaster for any organisation. There have been numerous cases of memos and e-mails being sent throughout corporate that employees are not to talk about or engage with topics such as #BlackLivesMatter. While sensitive subjects can certainly cause upset in the office, thinking that a blanket order to not talk about them will work is misguided. Healthy organisations will have leaders who will have the skills and willingness to help people engage with these types of issues, not to necessarily come to consensus, but to support their people and create a culture of respect.

A second familiar problem has been a failure to admit current and prior bad behaviour. We would not be talking about societal-level issues (racism, sexism, climate change, etc.) if there were only a few “bad actors”. These issues are pervasive and systemic, meaning that it’s likely that just about every organisation has dropped the ball to some extent over the years. 

While obviously some leaders of organisations have been worse than others, even those who have been “woke” for a long time likely have areas where they could have done better. Simply trying to move forward without acknowledging that more could have been done is likely to come across as quite insulting and self-serving, as it makes it appear that you simply don’t care about what has come before today. Moving forward on these issues requires acknowledging what you regret and why, before stating how you will operate differently in the future.  

Finally, and based on the previous point, statements of support or pledges to “do better” will at best fall on deaf ears and, more likely, will bring back calls of dishonesty or hypocrisy unless they are followed up with concrete, measurable action. Admitting mistakes and saying you’d like the organisation to be better is great, but it only really matters if you start taking measurable steps to change the situation. This means that leaders and press agents need to make sure that, whatever statements of support they make, they’d better already be packaged with clear, tangible steps forward to make sure you won’t have to make the same statements five years down the road.

What Does Work

As is always the case, ensure that your statements about social issues are tied directly back to your organisation’s stated purpose (why it exists) and values (what’s most important to the people in your organisation). This makes your statement meaningful and also makes it more likely that you’ll follow through with actions. As noted above, a statement that comes with its own action plan is the best way forward and sends a stronger signal, both internally and externally, that you mean what you say.

Secondly, if you don’t already have an organisational culture that encourages not just diversity, but inclusion and engagement, get to work on that immediately. Proactively seek out different opinions and don’t just give people a seat at the table, enable and empower them to steer the organisation in new directions. While this can be challenging for some leaders, as it requires taking a step back from the controls for a bit, it will strengthen your credibility not only in the present, but also in years to come. Similarly, it will help to ensure you are building leadership throughout the organisation, which makes it even more likely that you’ll have a whole lot less to be apologising for when the next societal level turning point arises.

While every leader and every organisation will need to come up with a specific plan for their own unique situation, the key points here will hopefully help in setting a productive heading; the questions below can similarly help draw out key thinking within your organisation which should further bolster your clarity of the current environment and you/your organisation’s role in it. The challenges facing everyone are not ones that business leaders can avoid, nor can they pretend that past practices can simply continue on unabated. We are facing a time of reckoning for many longstanding social ills; I hope that leaders across society, including business, take the opportunity to step up and set us on a better path.

Questions to Ask Yourself/Your Team
1) Why does our organisation exist (what is its purpose) and what are our values (what’s most important to us)? 
      a) Are people throughout the organisation aware that this is our purpose and our values?
      b) How does our stance on this issue (#BlackLivesMatter, climate change, etc.) match up with this purpose and our values?

2) Who are we going to involve in discussing these issues and leading our response?
      a) Are we empowering people to make improvements, or just asking their opinions?

3) What actions are we taking to live up to any statement we have released about this issue?
      a) Do we need to recognise current or past failings in this area in order to move forward?
      b) Have we clearly communicated what we will do moving forward to improve our practices in this area? Have we clearly supported and incentivised these steps as well as provided timelines and assessments that will allow stakeholders to hold us accountable for progress?