What’s your bottom line?

Two weeks ago, something quite interesting happened in corporate America.

B Corp, a group of around 30 CEOs from leading US and international corporations (including Ben & Jerry’s, Danone and Patagonia) took out a full page ad in the New York Times, urging their peers to commit to a more ethical way of doing business.

The ad was in the form of an open letter from the group to members of the influential Business Round Table, which is made up of 181 of the most prominent CEOs in America, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Apple’s Tim Cook.

B Corp describes itself as ‘a fair trade label for companies – a global movement of people using business as a force for good’.

Their underlying idea is to shift from a culture that prioritises shareholder profits above everything else, to one where employees and the environment get equal billing: a ‘triple bottom line’.

B Corp argues that this encourages longer term thinking. Which, as well as making for fairer and more socially-useful businesses, ultimately delivers more sustainable long-term value to shareholders.

It’s hardly a new idea. In fact, just a week earlier, the Round Table had issued its own statement, re-defining the ‘purpose of a corporation’ to give equal weight to social and environmental interests. In other words, the same triple bottom line.

Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan and the Round Table’s Chairman, said he hoped the statement would ‘help to set a new standard for corporate leadership.’

So why did B Corp feel the need to press for a firmer commitment?

Perhaps because the Round Table hasn’t always been consistent in its thinking.

Through the 1980s and early 1990s, when the US economy was booming, they promoted a similarly inclusive definition of a corporation’s purpose.

But, in 1997, when the global economy started to look a little more challenging, they rowed back on this progressive thinking and defined corporate purpose in much narrower, shareholder-first terms – and that’s where they’ve stayed ever since, until last month’s statement.

Which is why the B Corp open letter is so interesting.

They’re essentially challenging America’s biggest businesses to put their money where their mouth is.

Don’t just talk about a better model of business, they’re saying.

Commit to it.

Sign up.

Become a B Corp member.

It’s an interesting challenge because, if you do sign up, you’re changing the way decisions are made in your business.

For instance, using tricky loopholes to get round inconvenient tax rules (good for shareholder returns) would no longer be something you could justify (bad for the wider community).

And what happens when the global economy goes through another downturn – as economic indicators seem to suggest may happen soon?

Will your shareholders accept lower profits and smaller dividends, while you reinvest to protect your workforce and make your business more sustainable in the long term?

Or will they fire you?

As Bill Bernbach used to say, a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money.

Let’s see if the Business Round Table are really willing to live up to the bold words in their statement.

Matt is the author of tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture, which explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.

If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)

 

 

The right stuff

If you visit The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, one of the exhibits you’ll find in the space exploration section is a stopwatch.

At first glance, it seems fairly unremarkable.

Until you discover it’s the watch used by NASA flight technician Bob Carlton, to keep track of how much time was left before the fuel on the Apollo 11 moon landing craft would run out.

The clock is stopped with 18 seconds remaining.

In other words, after over two hours spent trying to find a safe place to set the landing craft down, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had just 18 seconds left before they would have to abort the mission and return to earth.

Man might never have set foot on the moon.  The world we grew up in might have felt a very different place.

So those 18 seconds are incredibly significant.

The position of the hands on the stopwatch is a permanent reminder of the moment when mankind became a species that could define its future in terms of more than one planet.

And, recognising the significance of the moment, Bob Carlton was determined to preserve it.

He put the watch in a box, took it home and locked it in his desk drawer.

A week later, he took it out and was perplexed to see that the hands were stopped at 22 seconds. Had he called the wrong time – made a mistake under pressure? Alarmed, he put the watch back and resolved not to mention it to anyone.

The following week, he looked again. This time, the hands were on 31 seconds. What was going on? Was the mechanism faulty? Had there been a risk to the mission? Did he need to report it?

The real explanation was more prosaic. Carlton’s teenage daughter was a drum majorette – she had found the watch in her dad’s desk and, not realising its significance, had used it to time her baton-twirling routines.

So the hands on the stopwatch you see in the Smithsonian are not stuck in the precise position they were in at the historic moment of touchdown.

They’re in the closest approximation Bob Carlton could get them into, before handing the watch over to the Museum 50 years ago.

Does that matter? Does knowing it reduce the significance of the watch – or its authenticity as a historical record?

Not really.

The point is not the watch. The point is the story – and what it tells us about the guts, determination and ingenuity of people who were prepared to fly hundreds of thousands of miles in a metal can to set foot on a totally alien environment.

You could melt the watch down and replace it with a fake one made out of cheese and it wouldn’t make any difference.

Because it’s not the symbol that matters. It’s the story behind it.

That’s something worth keeping in mind next time your business sets out on a mission to ‘rebrand’ itself.

People will agonise for weeks (or sometimes years) about the best colour ways, the ‘right’ font, the optimum balance between the logotype and the end-line.

And none of those things will make the slightest difference, if the business doesn’t also stand for something meaningful to the people who work there and the customers it serves.

Real brand is never about ‘branding’. It’s about having the right stuff.

Photo – The Smithsonian Institution – Museum of Space and Aeronautics

How to sabotage your own reputation

When you buy a ticket for an airline flight, what do you think you’re buying?

The ability to travel from A to B at the date and time on your ticket?

Not according to British Airways.

(Regular readers of this blog may sigh to hear me bring up that name again – but bear with me. I promise there’s a point…)

When I complained to BA recently about bumping me off a flight back from Texas, they handled it every bit as badly as the original incident (which is to say, they ignored it completely, until I sent a second stroppy letter to their CEO – at which point, they offered a grudging apology and a few quid off another flight).

The most interesting part was that they denied liability for any losses caused by the delay, because they said they weren’t contractually obliged to carry me on the flight they’d sold me the ticket for.

This didn’t seem to make sense, so I checked twice, to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood. I hadn’t. They said: ‘BA reserves the right not to let you on the flight if we’ve oversold it.’

In other words, when you buy a ticket from BA, what you’re actually buying is the ability to travel from A to B at a time that suits the airline, even if it totally disrupts your own plans.

Or, to put it another way, if you’re counting on BA to get you to a meeting, or a concert, or a family wedding on time, you’d better hope you’re one of the lucky ones that doesn’t get bumped off when they sell more tickets than they have seats on the plane.

You might think this is a rather odd policy for an airline that claims to pride itself on customer experience.

Until you remember it’s the same airline that, this week, got hit with a £183m fine for letting hackers access its customers’ confidential data.

‘This fine isn’t fair’, whined BA’s management. ‘We’re all about customers – we’ve just spent loads on some new bag drops at Heathrow. How can we be the bad guys here?’

And that’s the point. BA just don’t get it.

You can have the best bag-drops in the world. The fanciest menus. The softest cushions.

And none of that matters if you can’t get the basic elements of customer experience right. Such as taking people where they want to go when you said you would. And not exposing their personal and financial data to criminals.

If your customers can’t trust you, nothing else matters – and, if BA really cared about their customers’ experience, they’d know that.

But they don’t. And that’s why they’re now £183m worse off.

Winning cultures don’t happen by accident

You can tell a lot about a business by the way it approaches learning and development.

Some don’t bother with structured learning at all: ‘You’ll pick it up from the people around you’.

Some focus on operational imperatives: ‘Learn this process and follow it’.

Some focus on brand experience: ‘This is who we are and how we want our customers to feel’.

And a very rare few focus on the individual: ‘How can we help you be the best version of yourself?’

You won’t be surprised to hear that businesses with winning cultures overwhelmingly adopt the latter two approaches.

Learning and development is not an optional extra. It’s how you articulate and embed your culture. Businesses that embrace it are the ones that win.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

Nice guys finish first

A positive culture leads to business success. Not the other way around.

This is confusing for some people, who remember a time when it didn’t matter how you won, as long as you won.

When it used to be cool to have signs above your desk saying things like ‘nice guys finish last’ and ‘lunch is for wimps’.

That kind of gung-ho machismo doesn’t work anymore, because the world we live in has become much more transparent.

If you’re only in it for the money, if you cut corners, if you try to con people, they’ll find out sooner or later – and they’ll let the world know.

The only way to be sure of winning is to create an environment where the people who work for you feel happy enough to want to make your customers happy, too.

The future belongs to businesses that behave like humans.

Nice guys finish first now.

This blog is an excerpt from Matt’s new book; tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture. The book explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. If you fancy some bedtime reading, you can buy a copy here. Or pop into The Forge and pick one up for free (we might even make you a coffee…)

On me ‘ead, son

I’ve never been that bothered about football.

But this article by BBC journalist Guillem Balague about Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa is a fascinating case study in how to go about building a winning culture.

The jury’s still out on whether it will work – at time of writing, Leeds are second in the Championship.

But, if you want to inject some high performance thinking into your organisation, there’s a lot of food for thought right here

 

Start with your employees and the rest will follow

Herb Kelleher, who died this month, is widely regarded as one of the greatest CEOs America has ever seen.

Which is odd, because he never set out to run a business at all. He started his working life as a lawyer in New Jersey, before moving to Texas. It was while having dinner one night with a client in San Antonio that the two began discussing an idea for an airline that would help people travel more easily around the vast State.

The business that grew out of this conversation, Southwest Airlines, became the template for every budget airline that followed – as well as a shining example of what you can achieve with a business if you start by thinking about the people who work in it.

Kelleher’s genius was for making things simple and creating a culture where people took themselves lightly, but their jobs seriously.

When recruiting new pilots, he once brought all the prospective candidates together in a hangar on a warm day – and then turned the air conditioning off. An employee came out, apologised for the heat and offered shorts to anyone who wanted them. Some accepted but most, worried about not looking business-like enough, stayed in their shirts, ties and long trousers.

Only the candidates who took the shorts were offered a job. Kelleher wanted people who would be driven by common sense, not protocol – and flexible enough to adapt to unexpected conditions.

Naturally gregarious and charismatic, he once publicly arm-wrestled a rival for the right to use a disputed slogan (he lost, but with such good grace that he was still allowed to use it).

Above all, Kelleher had a gift for inspiring loyalty and dedication from his employees, because they knew with absolute certainty that they were his first priority.

As he once put it:

‘If you treat your employees right, guess what? Your customers come back – and that makes your shareholders happy. Start with your employees and everything else follows from that.’

Matt is the author of tribe: 66 ideas for building a winning culture, which explores the characteristics that contribute to a winning workplace culture. He’s also written inside: the 10 communication secrets that will transform your business.

If you’d like a free copy of either book, pop in to The Forge (we might even make you a coffee…)

 

The gunpowder test

Sailors in Nelson’s navy were entitled to a daily rum ration as part of their pay.

To make sure the rum hadn’t been watered down too much, the crew would test a sample from the barrel by pouring it over gunpowder. This process was called ‘proving’. If the gunpowder failed to ignite, it meant the rum contained too much water.

So the navy carried out experiments to determine the lowest concentration of alcohol at which the gunpowder would still ignite. They calculated it at four parts alcohol to three parts water (57.15% Alcohol by Volume in today’s language).

From then on, rum containing that percentage of alcohol was deemed to be ‘100 proof’, a measure which became the standard benchmark for alcoholic strength in the UK until 1980.

It’s a handy pub quiz fact. It’s also a fascinating example of the value of trust in employee relations.

Because the officers on board knew they could be confident the rum would ignite, they embraced the idea of the proof test and turned it into a public display. Which meant it stopped being a point of contention and mistrust for the crew – and, instead, became a repeated celebration of their employers’ integrity.

The Royal Navy became known for the morale and discipline of its crews and, as a result, their superior skills in seamanship and gunnery. Which allowed the British to defeat even their more powerful enemies, dominate the world’s oceans and establish the largest empire ever seen. All without spending a single penny more than they were contractually obliged to (because their rum rations were as efficient as they could possibly be).

Next time your finance director asks you why it’s worth investing in engagement, you might want to tell them this story.

Sometimes, you just have to let go

Wikipedia was set up 17 years ago as an experiment in collaborative knowledge-building. It’s now the world’s fifth most visited website – and the first place most people turn for information about anything.

What’s interesting about Wikipedia is that it subverts the previous norm. Instead of being curated by experts, it depends entirely on volunteers to submit and update its content.

Detractors have claimed that this makes Wikipedia unreliable. How can you trust the accuracy of information, they argue, if you don’t know the authority of the source?

They’ve got a point: there have been well-documented examples of howling errors, as well as allegations of entries being manipulated by interested parties (including the CIA and political lobbyists).

On the other hand, Wikipedia includes over 48 million separate detailed entries, written in 293 languages. In almost every case, those entries were written – and moderated – by people with a far greater knowledge of their subject than could ever be possible with traditional reference sources, such as Encyclopedia Britannica or Larousse.

No matter how good your paid researchers might be, it’s simply not economically viable to have enough of them, with diverse enough backgrounds, to be able to know that much about that much.

Wikipedia is a trade-off: you lose a bit of certainty, but you gain a massive increase in depth, variety and richness of content.

It’s the same trade-off most big businesses struggle with every day.

On the one hand, they want to ‘empower’ their employees. They know that, in many cases, those employees have a much more direct connection with customers than the people at the top of the business. They want them to use their initiative to be more agile – and their personality to inject warmth and humanity into their daily work.

They know that, if they can do that, their customers will have a much better experience and their business will be more successful.

But, on the other hand, most businesses are terrified of giving up control. They’re scared that, given too much real autonomy, their employees will make bad decisions that damage their reputation or lose them money.

And they’re right. If you give your employees a genuinely free hand, in some cases they will make bad decisions.

But, if you don’t open yourself up to that possibility, you’ll never be able to harness the incredible creative and human benefits that real empowerment can bring to your business.

Your call.

 

What’s that ticking noise…?

In 1958, the average lifespan of a business in the American S&P500 index was 61 years. Today, it’s 18 years. By 2028, it will be nearer 11.

In fact, according to a study by the Yale School of Management, it’s likely that around three-quarters of the companies in the S&P500 today will have disappeared from it altogether in ten years’ time.

No wonder CEOs are jumpy.

They know that, if they don’t keep reinventing their business, it won’t be one of the 25% that survives beyond the ten-year mark.

But they also know that, if they don’t hit their short-term targets, they probably won’t be around long enough to make the changes anyway.

With operating costs already cut to the bone, those targets are getting harder and harder to hit, which means there’s very little margin for error.

And that’s precisely where the problem comes.

When you’re looking for creative ways to reinvent your business, the surest path to failure is to play it safe. A little bit of incremental change here, an extra blade on your safety razor there. These are not the things that will save your business when a disruptive new competitor rips up the rule book and starts eating your lunch.

But, when your primary business focus is on delivering short-term results, you’re unlikely to have a culture where people embrace risk and failure.

It’s far more likely to be a culture where people stick rigidly to the processes and ideas that worked last time. A high-compliance culture, where contribution is measured only in numbers. And where nobody wants to admit that something hasn’t worked.

That’s not an environment where new ideas are likely to flourish. And, unless you can do something to change it, your business will inevitably suffocate and die – sooner rather than later, according to the Yale study.

So, what can you do? How do you take a workforce of people conditioned to be compliant process-followers and turn them into agile entrepreneurs?

Well, the bad news is that there’s no process for it. There’s no template to follow. No lever to pull.

The only way to do it is by changing the culture of your business. And the only way to do that is if you – and every other leader in the business – really wants to.

Everything else – launching a new purpose and values, polishing your employee value proposition, setting up a ‘creativity lab’ – is just a more or less interesting way of avoiding the issue.

You hear that ticking noise?

That’s time running out.