Charles Wookey, CEO, A Blueprint for Better Business

As we move into a second period of lockdown, with no clear route map yet emerging, there is a profound stress and anxiety for many across all dimensions of life and work.

In trying to make sense of what is happening, a very natural temptation is to predict, forecast and prescribe as if we somehow have privileged access to the answers. As one of our Advisory Council, Margaret Heffernan said a few days ago:

“Even as we anticipate a rising death toll, many are looking over the horizon to stake their claim to the future. It’s more than a little premature. We haven’t lived through the experience yet – and already we jump to conclusions about it. We don’t know who or where we will be when this ends. Attempts to define what happens next represent a power grab, attempting to wrest the future from all of us before we get there. We do better to experience fully and to understand the present than to let anyone pre-empt our future.”

In the immediate response to the crisis, what has been remarkable is the selflessness and the amazing willingness to comply with the lockdown. There has been a spirit of generosity in so many individuals and businesses, whose first question was not “how can we insulate ourselves?” but “how can we help?”. In some businesses this positive response was an instinct, while for others it is the natural outcome of a long held or recently uncovered purpose. What has perhaps never been more evident is that business is an active participant in society. It is also increasingly clear that though we face this health and economic crisis together it does not look the same for everyone.

Successful businesses faced closure overnight, while others have seen unprecedented levels of demand requiring unexpected levels of collaboration. While home became the office for some, others had their ability to work taken away. The uniting factor is that this is not because some businesses dealt with the crisis well or badly – in many ways the initial economic fallout of this health crisis has been arbitrary.

Undoubtedly, as we move into the next phase of the crisis very difficult decisions will have to be made within many businesses about how to share the financial burden and emerge. The way business leaders go about this is crucial. What are they navigating by? Does their purpose guide their decision taking? How important to them is the quality of relationships the business has? If a business really believes purpose and respect for people matter, then these are not things you give up on in a crisis. They are precisely the things to hold onto. They are what help you to take very hard decisions to share burdens in a fair way, informed by truly listening to all those affected. Whilst striving to survive financially, they help ensure the goal beyond that stays in view, so that the core business is poised to evolve in response to emerging societal and environmental needs, and in a way that has not undermined long-term relationships. How companies treat customers, employees and communities and communicate with investors will shape the way they recover and the support they will get.

A business should deliver social and financial value, and there has never been greater scrutiny in society of how businesses are adapting. As communities emerge from the enforced isolation of lockdown, we are most unlikely to be returning to the same world. There will be a crucial need for businesses to deepen their relationships with those on whom they depend for their success, to understand what local and wider communities actually want and need. A business will not be able to truly serve people and communities without first listening.

Managing cash flow matters, but there is an opportunity here to re-imagine how businesses show up. It may be that innovation in forms of creative dialogue will become a differentiator. It is not by accident that enabling and welcoming dialogue are at the centre of Blueprint’s Five Principles. A true willingness and desire to engage will not only help a business to prosper in the aftermath of the pandemic, but also to do so in a way that helps sustain those powerfully positive aspects of our shared humanity beyond self-interest which have been so much to the fore in the crisis to date.