As I hand over the role to a new Head of Corporate Engagement, I muse awhile on my time in post… I conclude that it is both a unique and very peculiar role and I cannot help but wonder: Did I do enough?
Firstly, to dispel any myth: There is no actual (noun) Blueprint to follow, no formula or set of steps that I can offer to make business ‘better’. Blueprint is, effectively, a philosophy’, a way of thinking… and that makes it pretty tough to sell or evidence. Mindset change I find is like a butterfly… beautiful to watch and yet almost impossible to catch. Sometimes it seems to be there, but then, sadly, it has gone.
There is, I have learned (painfully at times), no secret, no formula for ushering in the vital un-learning of the rigid and all-too-often ingrained unwritten rules that for many in the C Suite, paved the way to their posts of power. E.g. (be expert, be knowing, mind out for risk, ignore externalities, quarterly returns and bonuses are to be protected come what may). Or, for moving an ExCo from having read Brene Brown, to really understanding that readership is not leadership and the words ‘authentic’ ‘vulnerable’ and ‘servant’ require acts of great courage, not all-staff copies of the ‘required reading for our L&D’ book.
The lack of Blueprint or map is, I realise, both liberating and hard all at the same time. In many ways, that phrase, ‘liberating and hard all at the same time’ might be a catchall for the role as a whole; working as a catalyst to drive and support change, a critical friend, a coach and, as some would have it (Thank you, Jon Lewis of Capita) a ‘constructive irritant’. And yet, all of this, with no mandate to actually ‘DO’ anything. No power to decide. No power to decide who gets to decide…anything. This is soft power at its very softest, surely? And how does one wield that kind of power with grace AND efficacy? So, did I do enough?
I have found not doing hard. I am a doer in every walk of life. So what does a doer do when doing isn’t the job? How does one pull in, with the urgency that our breaking society and ailing planet requires, action, but from others? How does one uproot the muscle memory for ‘tweaking the system’ and show that a lack of imagination and an adherence to faulty assumptions about how business works, will not meet the need for new business models that can genuinely produce only goods that do good and services that genuinely serve? Or that the old approaches to people (human ‘capital’ really?) need a fundamental overhaul if we are to thrive rather than survive and deliver work which makes people, all people, safe, well and sure of their place as a valued member, of a winning team on a worthwhile mission?
Surely, by now, the evidence is clear that self-interest and old, creaking and breaking models must give way to a more enlightened self-interest? But how does one tread the balance between fostering hope, bringing galvanising, mobilising challenge AND ensuring that it is crystal clear that Business As Usual is not an option? It really isn’t. Really, Really, Really. From here on, there is and can be, no frictionless win-win. There must be tough calls. There must be courageous leadership. We must move beyond tables of (still, mainly) homogenous gender and race and educational background admiring the very biggest and very real problems, without acting with the agency that their titles afford them, nor with the urgency that is now demanded of them.
Blueprint holds unparalleled senior relationships and up close and personal exposure to the true FTSE decision makers – those whose decisions really matter when it comes to the extent to which we do, or fail to, become ‘better’ businesses, in a society that functions and in which our benevolent host, planet earth, survives. That is both enticing and frightening. I have been impressed where I hadn’t expected to be, deeply so and, sadly, I have also been unimpressed by those voids in which leadership appears to be rhetoric at its worst, and we find ourselves light on tough calls, on courage.
So what separates the leaders from the rest? I have found only three things I can pass to my successor by way of a tip to help her save time and identify those with whom her energy might be most wisely and usefully expended. These are three leadership characteristics (or behaviours) as I see them:
For the first, I am put in mind of the B Teams call from Davos last week in which Halla, their CEO, speaks to the need for a House of Courage. It is no surprise or accident that Paul Polman has joined her and the team there.
My number one is Courage. If you don’t yet have it, find some. Align yourself to it. Court it and never look back.
The second? Respect with humility. This one shows up in the most obvious of ways, and truly separates the leaders I have sat with into two groups – those who reply to emails themselves (yes, even though they run enormous organisations), with care and respect for the time of the sender, and… well, you get the picture re the rest?
And finally? They listen. Hard. And as they listen they learn. And as they learn, they would appear, to me at least, to be growing in courage and conviction.
I would like to thank all of those (albeit too small in number) leaders who are brave enough to listen and courageous enough to act. To know it makes them a target. To know that it is hard and to still, live with the fact that being a tall poppy is hard when the list of those reasons not to be bold runs long (investors want a short term return, its career limiting, we have targets to meet).
I thank all of those who didn’t get sidetracked by the promised-land of a pie-crust (easily made, easily broken) purpose promise. You know who you are and, I am guessing, you also know who you are not. Thank you for what you have done and will continue to do, with and alongside Blueprint and any other fellow travellers.
As for me, I am off to ‘do’ with those who want to ‘do’ with me. So in relation to my non-doing role, all that remains is to ask you, did I do enough?