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Business, social purpose and me: the tale of an individual journey towards meaningful responsibility

Business delivers things societies want or need, from goods and services through to things like wealth creation and employment. However, businesses also enjoy a range of benefits from society (such as access to an educated workforce, reliable transport links, and the protections of a well-functioning legal system…). Is that ‘trade’ sufficient or do firms need to specify, and indeed fulfil, a ‘social purpose’ in order to earn their place in society?

Some of my best professional days were quite a while ago when, in my early thirties, I was given the responsibility to lead the UK subsidiary of a small international group. MDs at that time had a huge level of autonomy to tackle the challenges their organisations were facing. Great!

Shareholders were light years away, business extremely tough, competition fierce and the future as uncertain as always… So what did I do? I just worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, hoping that my people would follow suit… and successfully delivered against very aggressive business plans. Great!

I was fully engaged but, although grateful for a rewarding career, I could not refrain from asking myself almost every single day why so many sleepless nights, why am I so demanding of my teams, why do I feel I’m missing the point? Why? I needed to inspire, give sense to my actions, understand the bigger picture and relate to it. Agility not being the enemy of integrity, I just followed in my own personal set of values, but I was no philosopher and there was little time to think in those days…

Long story short: I’ve had, over the past two and a half decades, the privilege to witness and contribute to companies’ cultural shift, moving from logos to mission statements, pure commercial values to behavioural ones, broadening the concept of shareholders to the one of stakeholders, and looking beyond profit with a clear ambition to add value to society…

By the way, and amazingly enough, I’ve observed over the years that the most engaged into a social-purpose and/or going-beyond-profit cultural shift were organisations that significantly failed to meet the terms of their social contract. They were driven by a desperate need to clear their names and address the consequences of their wrongdoings in the most efficient hence ethical way.

Nowadays, academics like Professor Emma Borg (1) are dwelling on issues beyond corporations’ fear of regulators to identify the roots of this cultural shift, providing us all with a clear understanding of the broader ‘social contract which ought to bind businesses and society. Their economical benefits analysis is so palatable that shareholders can only understand that there are no two ways about it: you’re in, for the greater good, or you won’t last!

If profit used to be corporations key target, the ultimate condition of their survival, it is broadly understood that it’s only a necessary one, far from being sufficient! Thanks to researchers like Professor Alex Edmans (2), it is now proven that the most successful corporations are those who articulate a clear social mission.

So yes, social purpose is the best friend of business efficiency, and I can’t refrain from thinking back to these old days when I was so desperate to anchor my engagement to a meaningful purpose… In a very similar way, our entire civilisation has been failing its duty of care for our planet and it is now our inspired kids who are leading leaders and politicians’ engagement… Thank you, young Ms Greta Thunberg! (3)

There must be only one future, a future where everyone in business, from the floor to the boardroom, will be able to answer in simple words the question which puzzles any nine year old child these days: “And you, who do you help?” I wish I had been able to ask that question to myself 30 years ago, but having run that long and beautiful journey towards meaningful responsibility, I’m glad that I can now answer their next one: “And how do you do it?” Can you?

PS: Should you be at the beginning of your journey, allow me to share a superb quote from Nelson Mandela: “Vision without action is just a dream, action without vision just passes the time, but vision with action can change the world.”

(1) Professor Emma Borg (University of Reading) – http://eborg.co.uk
Borg, E. & Hooker, B. 2017. Epistemic virtues vs. ethical values in the financial services sector’, Journal of Business Ethics. Online first: doi:10.1007/s10551-017-3547-x
Borg, E. The thesis of ‘doux commerce’ and the social license to operate. Draft manuscript available at http://eborg.co.uk/?page_id=42.

(2) Professor Alex Edmans (London Business School):
TEDx talk, “The Social Responsibility of Business” – http://bit.ly/csrtedx.
“Purposeful Business: The Evidence and Implementation” – http://bit.ly/GreshamPurpose

(3) Greta Thunberg – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greta_Thunberg

An ex-officer of the French Navy, Antoine has dedicated his career to managing the risks and compliance exposures of not for profit organisations where he was focusing on ethical business practices and decision making. A true believer in the benefits of a ‘beyond profit’ culture, he is determined to make a material impact in support of society’s harmonious development. Equally passionate about education, Antoine also chairs the Finance & Audit Committee of Europa School UK, the only UK accredited European School, in Culham near Oxford.


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