“Woman at work with a baby” should not be headline news. Work in the 21st Century must be about integrating home and work life in a manner that does not put work higher than the society it serves. The issue is: how will her employers best support her and her family because they should and not how Prime Minister Arden will cope being prime minister, as if having a baby is somehow an inconvenience.
I posted the paragraph above on LinkedIn last week along with a link to the news story and one person commented as follows: “Work does not ‘serve society’ other than (perhaps) under communism.”
That wasn’t the general view as many people “liked” the post, but I suspect that any talk of work serving society will elicit the communism/socialism challenge from some.
However, these challengers will become increasingly marginalised as the number of high profile “capitalists” write openly about the needs of society. Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, for example, has recently said that “society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose” (The Daily Telegraph, 17th Jan 2017). He is one of many.
It’s now possible to talk about society and business in the same sentence without being branded “a red under the bed”. However, all of this talk will remain just that – talk – until we address the tricky issue that in the current system capital takes priority over all other needs. There must be a mid-point between winner takes all capitalism and the perils of the proven disasters in far left models.
Now the Jacinda Ardern story may give progressive boards the excuse to confront this conundrum head-on. Why not abandon the concept of “leave” altogether? By that I mean, all leave: holiday, compassionate, sick, and that most horrible of all abbreviations “mat (and pat) leave”. The whole concept of being at work versus not at work, which is nonsense. People are people, whether at home or at work.
Why not give everyone a fixed price contract with a job specification that focuses on adding as much value as possible to the organisation? Why not make every effort to create an environment that maximises their chances of doing that? What better way to do that than to understand the personal issues of each employee and to do everything possible to make their lives fulfilling?
What better place to start than to abandon the “working day” to allow people to work with unlimited flexibility depending on their circumstances? Home life would not be a drag on work life – it would come first, with the blessing of the business. Does this sound utterly fanciful to you?
If it does, is that because a) you would like it to be, but believe it can’t be because no one would allow it or b) you believe it can’t be because capital is king and it would all cost too much or c) you believe that work and non-work should be completely separate?
If your board is progressive and wants to experiment with new ways of working because the old ways are no longer fit for purpose I would encourage you, as others have done successfully, to try out new models.
If you and your board feel that capital is king and profit will always trump society’s needs, I understand your view but your board should, if only for risk management reasons, reflect on why the likes of Larry Fink and others are using the “s word”? Do they see something on the horizon that you don’t?
If you and your board feel that the boundaries between work and home life should not be porous, then you must accept that you can’t have it both ways. If you want people to bring their “whole personalities” to work, then you must take their whole lives into account.
If you don’t, they will leave a large percentage of their value “at Reception”, and you will be losing out even before they start working for you. How can you justify that to your board?
It’s easy to throw rocks at Carillion. As some of the reasons for its collapse are emerging, so are the grim implications for those immediately affected. These problems will have been complex and only those involved know the truth.
But all of us, in business, are affected and implicated, are we not? Do we all not stand in the same corporate governance glasshouse that we have jointly constructed, rocks at the ready? Could this, or a similar catastrophe, not easily happen in your business, your department, or to your board? None of us should feel entitled to schadenfreude.
The situation reminds me of the film Sliding Doors, in which we are presented with two alternative outcomes: one in which the main character just makes it through the closing doors of a train and the other, they don’t. The movie proceeds to document the implications of these two alternate realities, popularising the expression: ‘a sliding doors moment’. It’s a powerful image.
I wonder how many sliding door moments occurred at the main and operating boards at Carillion and in the meeting rooms of the contracting government departments? What decisions were taken when and by whom? Decisions that, in aggregate, led to this nightmare.
Or, what decisions were not taken, or conversations not had, or horizons not scanned and by whom? But crucially, was it safe to speak up?
Many will say that’s the role of the non-executive directors: to ask the hard questions. But the power of NXDs is limited by the culture of the board, how much they’re told and their own courage.
Or you might say that this is market forces properly, if brutally, at work. Cash is king. You can lose money forever but run out of cash only once. And, dress it up any way you like, Carillion ran out of cash. This is capitalism working. The strong survive. The weak go to the wall. Another gladiator bites the dust in the coliseum that is the City of London.
And technically you would be right, except that this analysis ignores one factor: society gave Carillion a mandate to trade and without that mandate, it could not have traded, or run out of cash.
So I say again: are we all not responsible for this? For the creditors, who will be lucky if they get a penny in the pound? For the families whose lives will be wrecked? For the further erosion of trust in business?
So what to do? Well, you can do nothing and nothing will change; or you can decide at your next board meeting that you want to put in place processes that would reduce these risks for your business.
Is your reaction that it can’t happen to your business? That yours is too risk averse? That your corporate governance is perfect?
If that’s what you think, stop reading this now, although you might benefit from reading How The Mighty Fail by Jim Collins. Hubris is reason number one.
But if you choose to take a courageous step and suggest change then you will be forced to confront the reason why all businesses go bust or experience, as the lawyers euphemistically like to call it, ‘a major risk event’.
Businesses run out of cash because of the decisions taken that result in the owners of cash pulling the plug.
There is no mystery here. The cause of failure will be in the decision- making processes unless it’s a force majeure event. And even then, shouldn’t force majeure be on your risk register?
So how can you ‘de-risk’ the decision-making processes in your boardroom, particularly on your operating board or ExCo where you have access to more information and real decisions are made?
What if at every main and operating board meeting in your business one member, by rotation, were appointed as the Devil’s Advocate for that meeting with permission, nay the expectation, that they can say the unsayable, speak truth to power and challenge, for the sake of it, every key decision?
I suspect, if done properly, many key decisions would be either reversed or amended. But more importantly, many important matters – especially risky conduct, which is risky behaviour over time – would be called out.
But your Devil’s Advocate would require a mandate to represent all stakeholders – not just shareholders and the banks, but creditors, large and small, employees, their families and the environment.
No chance you may say.
It matters. Why is Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, of all people, saying that “society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose”? (The Daily Telegraph, 17th Jan 2017).
Why did Philip Augar write, regarding the governance at one FTSE company that’s in trouble, that “none of the right questions had been asked”, and that “The alternative, carrying on as before, has already led to a fractured society…”? (FT, January 4th, 2017).
Why did Merryn Somerset Webb, the editor in chief of Money Week, write only last month (also in the FT) that since “most adults in the UK have a stake in the listed UK sector, they should know that – be able to act upon it”?
The reason these three are saying what would be unsayable ten years ago is because the zeitgeist is changing. Women are standing up to predatory men at work. Electorates are defying age-old voting patterns. And investors are seeing the writing on the wall for old processes.
They see that the current model isn’t working. They also see that it’s not a binary solution – capitalism versus socialism, but a midpoint which gives all stakeholders a say in matters which affect them.
Perhaps the term should be Stakeholder Advocate and not Devil’s Advocate.
But if these arguments do not persuade you to implement a devil’s advocacy process at your board meetings you might ask yourself why?
Is it because you’re afraid? If you are, then the seeds of self-destruction are already sown in your organisation.
It’s only a matter of time.