How can we decouple growth from negative social and environmental impacts, asks Anthony Howard. Like all big questions, this is not an easy one to answer. It can be difficult enough to find agreement on the problem we are confronting, let alone the range of solutions to that problem.
The Performance Theatre (TPT) is an annual event that brings together global leaders from business, academia, government and the social sector with world class thinkers to explore answers and encourage responses to big challenges like this. This year’s gathering was held in Beijing, in the context of the new 5 year plan recently announced by China, and against the backdrop of a nation which is confronted by, and confronting, the question of sustainable growth.
Four key themes emerged to run like a thread through the talks, workshops and conversations:
- Foster authentic leadership
- Innovate your business model
- Ask better questions
- Leverage our commonalities
Authentic leaders have done the hard inner toil to integrate their life and purpose with their work and other pursuits. They are ‘real’ in the same way we attribute authenticity to a genuine diamond, or an original masterpiece. Authentic leadership springs from within such a leader who both knows themselves and knows their people, understanding their strengths and their flaws—and appreciating that this is part of being human, not something that makes one better or worse than the other. One of their finest qualities is that they attribute greatness to their followers more so than themselves, and focus on creating an environment in which their people can flourish. This approach inverts the management pyramid, placing the CEO and management at the bottom, in service of those above. Attitudes like these create the possibility for new solutions.
“Business as usual will not get us where we want,” remarked one of the speakers, calling for a new business model based on human dignity, human rights, ethics and common values. Engaging with this observation creates the possibility for business model innovation across the supply chain, talent practices, supplier relationships and customer engagement. As Gary Hamel and others have noted, while technology has revolutionised the way we do business we still tend to run businesses, and approach people management, in the same way as our predecessors did. Business model and management innovation can create organisations which stimulate growth while using less of the world’s resources. Models that posit business at the service of society and the environment, rather than the reverse, are the starting point in this endeavour.
The only way to find better answers is to ask better questions. For example, with regard to people we can ask “who will grow and develop the most from solving this problem?” rather than the traditional “who is best suited to fix this problem?” GE asked this question when confronting a recall of millions of refrigerators with faulty compressors, and chose Jeff Immelt—who had no experience with refrigerators or recalls. Geoff Colvin of Fortune Magazine says Immelt credits this experience with helping him land the top job at GE.
Or “how can we as a business help society be better socially, economically, and environmentally?” rather than “how can we maximise profits and minimise costs?” Asking this question at Unilever created three significant ten year objectives: “To help more than one billion people take action to improve their health and well-being; to halve the environmental footprint of the making and use of our products; and, to source 100 percent of our agricultural raw materials sustainably.”
Or “how can we restructure manufacturing processes at internet speed—ie every six months or less, not every 10 years?” Haier have created the world’s largest whitegoods manufacturers by asking questions like these combined with innovative management practices.
One of the striking elements of conversations with people from other cultures is our tendency to compare—East/West, investment/consumption, rural/urban, conservative/frank, process/result, collective/individual, contribution/return, quantity/quality—with a consequent attempt to draw lessons from the comparisons. A number of commentators at TPT observed that a better approach is not to compare, but to collaborate, to find and leverage our commonalities. This perspective replaces us/them language with ‘we’ thinking, which is much more conducive to recognising a common humanity and finding common solutions
The challenges we face transcend national borders and directly impact future business success, since business cannot succeed in a community that fails. As such they require a new level of response from business leaders, particularly those who lead organisations which cross national borders. Personal authenticity, courageous innovation, deeper questioning, and enhancing common interest will optimise one’s contribution for the benefit of society, flowing through to sustainable growth and a sustainable enterprise.