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Seeing the opportunities in the big issues – feature

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"A successful business will better serve its shareholders by focussing on the needs of its customers, employees, suppliers and the wider community." 72% of business leaders in recent MORI survey. Every day, the big issues present themselves. They were forced on world attention in the most horrifying form in the tragedy of the 11th September and its consequences, not least, the plight of millions of hungry, frightened Afghan people.

The Big Issues
- the ecological crisis and sustainability
- the increasing gap between rich and poor nations and people
- the gift and problem of diversity — how to make it a source of delight, wealth and creativity rather than of stereotyping, discrimination, exploitation and violence
- providing every human being, 80% of whom live in developing countries, with the chance of a healthy and fulfilling life
- creating good, sustainable and successful workplaces contributing to a fair and sustainable world
- the need for companies to be good world citizens as well as profitable
- the power of transnational corporations — a potential force for good or a threat to democracy and livelihoods, especially those of the poor
- the power and unpredictability of financial markets
- the gap between "clever" strategy makers and those who implement or are affected
- the need for meaning and balance; uniting mind, heart, body and spirit

Seeing the Opportunities in the Issues
The key to long term success is to see the big issues as opportunities. In the long run, enlightened self-interest, ethical and sustainable business make good sense. Business is and always has been a force for innovation and transformation.

It’s exciting that every day, companies and individuals take initiatives to improve the situation, find solutions and move things forward. Every day there is positive news (unfortunately bad news gets most of our attention). We only hear a fraction of it!

Eddie Stobart, owner of Britain’s largest independent road haulier, has just brought in a nutritionist to advise its 1,200 drivers on how to eat healthily and reduce the risk of heart disease. By releasing their workforces’ creativity, ACD Tridon (wipers) and Dutton Engineering, near me, survive global competition against all the odds. Better known are Jaguar Cars (environment and corporate citizenship); B&Q (sustainable DIY products and ethical and sustainable sourcing); IKEA (ethical and sustainable sourcing); Littlewoods (sustainable goods; ethical and sustainable sourcing and diversity policies); Waitrose (ethical and, where possible, local sourcing, organic and non-GM food). The Co-op Bank attributes its prosperity, despite intense competition — an 8.7% increase in pretax profits in 2000 — to its ethical and green credentials. Responding to the desire for real "ownership", Scott Bader, St Lukes advertising agency, Tower Colliery and the John Lewis Partnership are examples of employee-owned companies. The UK’s Employee Ownership Index finds that EO companies outperform all the major indices over the long term.

Auto manufacturers, like Ford, Honda and Toyota, are developing new, cleaner engines using different fuels, electric power and hybrid engines. Bill Ford, Chairman of Ford, says: "In 25 years, fuel cells could be the predominant way of powering cars."

By 2050, it is predicted, most of the planet’s electricity will come from four renewable sources: water, wind, sun and hydrogen. Wind power is the world’s fastest growing energy source. Many of these can provide cheap power on a small local scale, particularly good for developing countries.

Another positive development is growing awareness of the need for servant leadership, a very old idea. Enlightened self-interest enables companies to survive against the odds. Having a strong sense of core values and purpose leads to greater long-term financial success.

Every time I visit the States, I discover more benign initiatives taken by businessmen and women to help create a sustainable, fairer, healthier, more ethical world, tackle poverty and provide people with more opportunities. It seems business people there are more generous than on this side of the Atlantic.

It is far from true, as a reviewer of my recent book (Nixon,B 2000) implied, that most directors and senior managers are cynics, only concerned with profit and share value. We have to be realistic and accept that big business has become too powerful, exercises too much influence over politicians and national and global institutions; there is corruption, dirty tricks, cover-ups, wide gaps between declared policy and reality etc. We need sceptical and probing NGO’s and media. But business leaders are people too — parents, daughters and sons, family members, partners, friends, neighbours and citizens. Many are idealists, though they have a role conflict and need to be astute about how they present themselves. It is a challenge to survive in the global economy and be enlightened at the same time and yet paradoxically it may be the only way in the long term.

The consequences of failing to respond
Companies and industries that mishandle change or do not behave like corporate citizens, get egg on their faces. They lose their reputation, competitive edge and their best people. They find it difficult to recruit; fail to reap the harvest of employee passion and creativity; their shares tumble and they lose customers. Global institutions that are not inclusive and ignore the interests of ordinary people face protest on the streets and are unwelcome. Governments face revolution or declining belief in democracy. Never underestimate the cynicism and power of individual citizens. Consumers, investors and NGOs are major positive forces that cannot be ignored.

Research confirms: "customer satisfaction is related not only to customer service but also whether the company is perceived as honest and whether it is thought to take its responsibilities to society seriously". The ideal company would be: trustworthy, a good corporate citizen while also dynamic and innovative. The same points apply to employee satisfaction.

Leaders need to help all their people be fully aware of the major trends and issues affecting their businesses and involve them in developing and implementing strategies that respond to these opportunities. That brings prosperity to the organisation and benefits society at the same time. Leaders need to encourage the sharing of information about trends and issues; encourage relating throughout the organisation — no "silos"; create widespread awareness in the organisation and do everything possible to unsettle complacency. In the global economy, failure to spot the key trends, defensiveness, denial and resistance will only lead to decline.

But even more important, recent events, the horror of 11th September 2001 and the plight of ordinary people Afghanistan, demonstrate even more strongly that our world is fragile and highly unpredictable; that everything is interconnected; we are all members of a global community and what happens in other parts of the world, especially in other cultures and the less economically developed world, affects us and really matters. Business is a powerful potential force for good, but it can only thrive in a stable— that means ethical and sustainable — world.

When we create the conditions in which top people and others in an organisation can work together as equals, be themselves, state their truth, look at the whole situation, share their information and opinion without fear, get in touch with what really matters to them, their passion and vision, the results are remarkable.

A venue where people can get in touch with the natural world will help their spirit. This is how we can move forward with the big issues, ensuring the future of our organisations and taking socially responsible action at the same time.

The way human beings learn is messy. We make mistakes all the time. Things transform whatever we do. A lot happens by bumping into each other and relating. We are more like termites than we might like to acknowledge. All of us play a part in this process. It is up to us to decide what unique part we want to play, where our energy lies, where our passion will take us and what we will do.

© Bruce Nixon, independent management consultant in organisation transformation and learning, Berkhamsted, UK. brucenixon@waitrose.com

Bruce is also author of Global Forces — a Guide for Enlightened Leaders — what Companies and Individuals can Do, 2000 and Making a Difference — Strategies and Tools for Transforming your Organisation 2001, Management Books 2000. You can buy "Making a Difference" from the TrainingZONE - Blackwells bookshop.

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