Rita Clifton: Being the change
Rita Clifton, former Chair and CEO of Interbrand, and co-founder of BrandCap, talks to Lysanne Currie about the importance of the finance function in building back better, and why humanising business will be key to success in the post-Covid world.
Rita Clifton CBE has been called a “brand guru” by the Financial Times, “the doyenne of branding” by Campaign magazine and “a fabulous ambassador for business” by Retail Week. It’s in this latter capacity that her new book, Love Your Imposter: Be Your Best Self, Flaws and All, aims to rehabilitate the public profile of business.
Because that word “flaw” is something that has latterly attached itself to the corporate world like iron filings to a magnet.
Business has a bad rep, on everything from gender balance to transparency and sustainability. The pandemic, of course, may have changed everything. From the sudden appearance of pets and kids in Zoom’s virtual boardroom to the sense (if only partially true) that “we’re all in this together”, it has begun to humanise business. Clearly, this is an excellent opportunity to build back better.
So Clifton’s Love Your Imposter is a timely proposition: a call for a more open, honest and authentic style of leadership – with chapter headings such as “On the strangely positive power of mortification” – as business thinks seriously about what kind of face it wants to present to the post-recovery world.
It was nearly called Naked and Unprepared. “That started as a joke but reflected a truth,” she writes. “Throughout my personal and working life, I can honestly say I have never felt well enough prepared for anything – whether an exam, school play, meeting, pitch, presentation or whatever. I’m always worried that I haven’t done enough, haven’t worked hard enough, haven’t achieved enough and that, yes, someone’s going to find me out.”
She’s not alone: studies show two-thirds of women in the UK suffer imposter syndrome at work. A number of reasons have been suggested for this: that women tend to be more self-critical or, as she puts it in her book, that “women’s success is contraindicated by societal expectations”.
But Clifton understands that business itself may feel like a bit of an imposter. Unworthy. Even, perhaps, something to be ashamed of. “First and foremost, the reason I wrote the book is because I have felt for a lot of my career that business has had such a bad rap,” she says.
“Brand business has never been more mistrusted, criticised and disdained. It’s a really painful and embarrassing thing that many politicians feel they can get more votes from giving business, particularly big business, a good kicking, as opposed to encouraging it. So I think that creates all sorts of challenges for all of us who are trying to do our best, because it doesn’t help when we’re set up as these Hollywood villains or empty corporate suits, here to just spoil the environment or to rip off some shareholders.”
The human league
So how to change perspectives while sorting out your own front yard? “We’ve got to make ourselves look more human,” she states. “We have to prove business is populated and run by human beings who have normal feelings, emotions, even a sense of humour. If we don’t have good business we don’t have money to pay for schools and hospitals and civil society. I’m not always sure that people who work in business are clear about what it’s there to do and who it’s there to benefit.”
There’s that gender imbalance, too. “Ninety per cent of the world’s countries and institutions are run by guys,” she says, while noting that many of the countries that have most successfully countered Covid-19 have female leaders. It’s enough to make you think women should just take over… “I’ll settle for 50/50,” she says, reasonably. “But what that really boils down to is I want a lot more – a lot more – women running organisations – as CEOs, chairs and managing directors, the most senior level.”
Clifton herself was a CEO for five years, and though she says she didn’t particularly love it (“a relentless, stressful job”), the experience consolidated her vision for change: “A big part of writing the book was that I wanted to share my experiences about what I found had been helpful and unhelpful, about progressing in business and eventually becoming a CEO and a chair and sitting on boards. I hope I’ve shared my experience in a very honest way, because I feel you’ve got to be the change.”
Of the post-pandemic future, she professes to “live in hope, and also in expectation. We have to be realistic about what some of the stresses and strains are going to be on businesses coming out of this, because people need livelihoods. It’s all very well for us to sit in our houses with our gardens and do our exercise and self-development. But it just makes you want to cry that for a lot of the world, people are unable to work, can’t support their family and can’t eat.”
Building back better
In such a future, sustainability is still top of the agenda. “The future is not written, but we can all create it,” she says. She’s currently working on a project at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School concerned with enacting purpose. “It’s got a very diverse set of people sitting around the table thinking about how a whole range of organisations can make sure this happens in the right way. Because we’re all here, hopefully, to make a happier, healthier set of populations – and that goes for business as well as for governments.”
Risk management is a big factor behind sustainability being taken more seriously in the corporate as well as the political world, she notes. “Catastrophes tend to be expensive, so a lot of impetus has come from the fact that business can’t ignore the clear manifestations of planetary stress.” It drives her mad, she adds, that “people are seeing the economy and health as two separate forces. The economy isn’t some abstract construct: it is absolutely about people’s jobs and livelihoods. And shareholders include ordinary people with savings and pensions, not just sharp-suited city types.
“So we need to make sure we’re humanising shareholders and bringing in a broad range of stakeholders. It’s even more important in the digital age because, no matter how much you spend on PR and communications, if you’re not doing a good job internally you get found out with a scale and speed that takes your breath away. You can’t plaster over a stinky company anymore.”
The best finance people are great strategists – they become the consigliere and enabler for the whole organisation
Those “dirty, uncaring businesses are always going to struggle,” she says, and it can be a longer-term decline. “When you’ve got a bullying CEO or founder, what happens is not necessarily customers saying, ‘I’m going to stop buying from them,’ particularly if they like the price or products. What happens is you get a talent leak, sometimes a talent gush, and then you start to get worse products and service. Staff aren’t happy so they don’t make customers happy, long-term rot seeps in – and it’s more difficult to attract talent.”
Chapter four of Love Your Imposter will have particular appeal to CAs. Subtitled “No numbers = no boardroom”, it’s a championing of the role of the finance function, which she described as “a very important golden thread. The reason there’s a chapter in the book on the importance of understanding the numbers is that, even now, the language of the boardroom is finance,” she stresses. “You’ve got to make sure you speak that language in order to be there. I’m a big champion of making sure we do, women in particular, because we need more women stepping up and putting themselves in the pipeline for being CEOs and on the executive board. That means making sure you’ve got a grip on numbers and that you can read a balance sheet.”
She occasionally wishes she’d done accountancy for three years on graduation, instead of going straight into business. “It gives you a fantastic base for describing what you think needs to happen from a strategic point of view, from a customer point of view and from a stakeholder point of view. I’ve always thought the best finance people are great strategists; they become the sort of consigliere and enabler for the whole organisation.” CFOs are in a good position to step up and become CEOs, she says.
Ultimately, though, the book’s most crucial takeaway is: “We need to make business feel more human and friendly so that politicians are proud to support business people who are creating wealth. We need to get people to radiate enthusiasm about running a business and what it means for them. It’s not just for dignity – frankly, it’s a necessity.”