9 steps to being a better business in a post-Covid world
Mike Barry outlines why now is a good time for all businesses to make changes and #BuildBackBetter
The Covid-19 crisis has shown starkly the urgent need for a better form of capitalism, one that works for citizen, community, society, planet and shareholder alike. While putting out today’s fires we also need to think about what comes next, how do we #BuildBackBetter? While many companies are still in a fight for their survival, a number of them are now saying: “We get the premise of ‘better’ but how do we do it in practice?” So here is a basic road map to a “better” business framed around three questions:
- Why do I need to be “better”?
- What do I need to change to be “better”?
- How do I make “better” my way of working across all that I do?
Most companies that have been down this track over the past decade have run straight to the “what” question.
What’s my science-based target? What social due diligence should I do in global supply chains? What target do I need to commit to if I’m to reduce energy use, water use, plastic use, etc?
And that was fine when social and environmental issues were perceived as peripheral to business strategy and day-to-day boardroom discussions.
Reputational issues to be managed on the edge of a business fighting to win in a globalised economy.
But no business will be able to meet the new expectations of citizens (and how they consume), policy makers and investors with this sort of tepid approach in the future.
You will have to be better in all that you do, all of the time, not just for the narrow benefit of those who participate in your self-defined value chain, but also much more broadly for society and the environment in general.
So the “why” and “how” questions become existential if you are to prove, transparently, that you are truly better in a questioning world.
“Why” puts social and environmental issues at the beating heart of your purpose, mission, strategy and customer proposition.
And “how” is the process by which the boardroom vision becomes day-to-day reality in all that you do, all of the time. So here are nine brief points on the why, what and how. (NB: there could easily be 99, but these are the key ones to start with.)
Why are we doing sustainability?
1. Be clear about your purpose.
There’s quite an industry in generating purpose, mission and values for corporates. Most feel like generic, derivative management speak.
The best ones align with a company’s heritage.
Listen deeply to your customers and employees. Ask them to shrink your company down to one word. At M&S it was “quality”, so Plan A added a new emotional dimension to quality beyond the functional.
Look at Blueprint for Better Business, the B-Corp movement and Julian Richer’s Good Business Charter for roadmaps to follow to make your purpose real.
2. Be on the right side of marketplace disruption.
Understand the rapid shifts (coal to wind/solar; petrol to electric; meat to plant/lab-based; throwaway to circular fashion) that bring better products and services to customers.
Don’t say, “Disruption is for everyone else, not me.” Every product will, in the next decade, be redefined through the sustainability lens.
3. Be a consistently bold and brave leader.
The CEO and board need to lead personally, internally and externally, championing their vision to be better all of the time, not just having a ghost-written foreword in the annual report.
4. Set clear bold goals to be better.
Articulate what your social and environmental footprint is and what you will do, not just to reduce it but to create net benefit too. Not just environmental but – too often forgotten – social (on tax, lobbying, privacy, zero-hour contracts, mental health etc) targets that are time bound and measurable.
5. Hold yourself to account.
Create a CEO-led governance system assigning clear accountability for delivery and supported by accurate, regular, granular management information on performance.
6. Be transparent about how you perform.
Report openly and honestly about your performance (see the Global Reporting Initiative). Look outwards and wherever possible use external benchmarks to baseline yourself, such as the World Benchmarking Alliance or Corporate Human Rights Benchmark.
How are you integrating sustainability into all that you do?
7. Engage your employees – be good for them in how you reward, develop and recognise their efforts.
If “better” is all that you want to do, it needs to be all that they do, too. Make it easy for them to get involved. Know what’s expected of them. Listen to their ideas – they will often be superior to yours! Train them in better business, for example through organisations such as the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership.
8. Engage your suppliers – know who they are, where they are, what they do.
Yes, set standards for them and measure their performance in exactly the same way you would measure your own. But focus on
unleashing their creativity, their ideas and their commitment to build better together, rather than treating it as a matter of compliance.
9. Be active participants in partnerships for change.
The economy is too big to change alone. You have to get off your own stoop and go and find platforms to drive change together, whether on a national scale (Business in the Community), globally (BSR, World Business Council for Sustainable Development); by sector (from Imagine’s Fashion Pact to the National Farmers Union) or by issue (WRAP Plastic Pact).
In total, engage your customers. They have to know you care. That you are committed to them, their family, their community, their society and their planet through all that you do.
Through your products, the service you offer, your physical presence in their neighbourhood, your contribution to the public good.
Your entire suite of communications (brand, product, social etc) needs to be tested for its ability to communicate what makes you “better” in an open and transparent way.
These nine steps to better business are not meant to be definitive but rather offer a broad roadmap to those many companies which want to do things very differently from today and be useful, relevant and better for the society they serve and the planet they depend upon.
This article first appeared in the June 2020 issue of CA magazine.