I constantly find myself in the position of having to explain why principles of integrity should guide performance and define reputation. So I was interested to read Sarah Gordon’s account of covering the City for 20 years in the Financial Times. Her article, which sums up many of the key principles with which I align (FT, weekend edition, 9 March 2019), provides yet another candid view of the ‘system’ of key actors – including the regulators, experts, media and analysts – as being blind to the greed and behaviour of corporate bosses. Integrity seems to be little more than a fairy tale than the rule book for those in leadership. I also accord with Gordon on another point: after years spent in corporate life (corporate advisory for me; media in Gordon’s case), we want to reform the way business champions profit – replacing it with another approach that delivers wider, more positive value.
What, then, should be done about excesses of behaviour, dominance and responsibility? I propose a need to address two main areas.
Language: Reporting on performance is conveyed in the most mind-numbing way, as Sarah Gordon admits. It is written in such a way that only those in the corporate inner circle can understand what is going on. Politicians who bear the responsibility of governing rely on the judgement of advisers to guide them through the impact of corporate decisions. And the general public lacks access to and knowledge of the subject matter to enable them to ask pertinent questions – often understanding the effect of a decision taken only when it is too late and the impact on their livelihoods is irreversible. Unless we educate people on how corporate and financial decisions are made, they will never be able to grasp the implications.
From experience of sitting on corporate boards, it takes knowledge and continued education to understand this reporting in order to ask the right questions and hold informed conversations to make sound decisions. I agree with Gordon, who says that in the past to sit on a board was a social honour rather than a fiduciary responsibility.
Businesses must deliver more than just a promise on profits. There are exceptions, of course, to this corporate behaviour – for instance, Paul Polman of Unilever. Gordon also cites the work of Sir Charlie Mayfeld at John Lewis, Jürgen Maier at Siemens and even Larry Fink at BlackRock. A company must have a sincere purpose to do good, in caring for its employees, society and the environment. INSEAD taught me how fair leadership can deliver business for good. Language is a key part of how performance is explained, measured and driven.
Risk and responsibility: Whether we are students, investors, savers or borrowers, we have to make informed decisions, to understand the terms of engagement and ask the right questions. To do so, we have to appreciate the level of risk. This applies whether we shop excessively on credit cards, or invest in financial products that promise opportunities but have inherent risks.
In the next stage of my career, which I am happily starting in the Mediterranean – after 25 years of corporate advisory in London, Brussels and Dubai – I will soon be launching a series of empowerment sessions on financial literacy. I will analyse the basics of saving, borrowing and spending, explaining prudence, risk-taking and decision-making. The aim of these empowerment sessions, which will be geared towards our Mediterranean culture, is to help women and men develop informed responsibility, since, in my part of the world, such matters are not taught at school or discussed around the kitchen table.
These are what my friend J. Michael Tomlin refers to as ‘matters of life and debt’.
Watch this space!