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Yee Liu Williams
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01 April, 2015

From ‘wobble land’ to ‘dark nights of the soul’— Can big business help to fix the world?

Mike Smith, Lucy Parker, Jon Miller and Deborah Henderson
Mike Smith, Lucy Parker, Jon Miller and Deborah Henderson

Misconduct in the financial industry no longer surprises. Trust in big business and banks has been weakened by a world of economic inequalities and corruption. But is there another side of the coin? Can big business help to transform the world?

Jon Miller
This was the question addressed by Lucy Parker and Jon Miller, co-authors of the book Everybody’s Business, when they spoke in IofC’s London centre on 24 March. Alongside them, Deborah Henderson, former banker at Morgan Stanley in Wall Street, told her personal story of transformation from corporate banker to executive coach in the cut and thrust world of finance. Chairing the evening, Mike Smith, IofC UK’s Head of Business Programmes, introduced the panelists who spoke about ‘the unlikely story of how big business can fix the world’—the subtitle of Parker’s and Miller’s book.

Parker outlined their motivation in identifying business leaders—'exceptions to the norm'—who have changed the world, illustrated in story after story in their book. ‘We set out on a journey to unearth these stories to make them visible to people…. quite astonishing things you wouldn't know of unless you are close enough inside. We wanted to tell that story, with the hope for it to become the norm.'

‘When it works, it's when big business thinks about its relationship to society in a constructive way,’ Miller said. The two authors are senior advisors with the Brunswick Group, one of the world’s largest PR firms.

The Nike story exemplified such leadership. A leading brand that prides itself on high quality products, Nike combined innovation and R&D into 'building environmental constraints' into product design. The company had earlier ignored a public outcry about conditions in its supply chain. Eventually responding and changing tack, the company went on to win awards for its innovative 'knitted trainer'—a 'single strand trainer' construction—that drastically reduced waste and materials.

‘When change happens it's only ever because of absolute focus, hard work and determination by a small number of individuals who have the mission to try to create change in their organization,’ commented Miller.

Nike's journey had become 'emblematic' as one of the first corporates to openly publish details of their supply chain.

‘Business transformation cannot be dictated from on high, from corporate headquarters—but with a realization for transparency, not being a walled-up company,' Miller continued. This had meant having to 'get on the ground' and work with civil partners where collaboration is key. Similar big companies had also had ‘real cause to question who they are and what they do.’ They had to undergo a corporate journey—a business transformation—which Miller described as a ‘dark night of the soul’.

Dark night of the soul

Deborah Henderson
Deborah Henderson, originally from Canada, continued the theme of transformation from a personal perspective as a senior corporate banker.

She described her ‘excitement’ at how she initially perceived her bank’s brand as ‘part of the integrity’. This was accompanied by privileged trappings in her early days of employment as Morgan Stanley. She felt she had ‘arrived’. But as the financial equity market ‘tanked’—collapsed—she had to ask herself probing questions: ‘Where was the integrity that I felt so important—not only for Morgan Stanley but also for the industry as a whole? Who am I? Where am I now meant to be working and serving?'

Her soul-searching journey led her to question the driving force of macro- and micro-money markets as the ‘be end and end all of life’ for so many people. But as Henderson realized, ‘I knew there was something in me that needed to leave. That was part of my "dark night of the soul". It was challenging…. Headhunters told me that my skills were not transferable and advised me not to leave.'

She commented that the place of ‘wobble land’—moments of great confusion, chaos and self-reflection—was also a 'gift' and opportune time for change. 'Too much fear in a system can become so toxic it can actually cause financial distress and the prediction of going bankrupt.’ She equated this to the great fear in human beings that can cause illnesses.

Discovering that 'harnessing the human potential' was her vocation, Henderson retrained as an executive coach and today works closely with business leaders and their top teams 'to re-shape organizational cultures and to re-build trust'. She uses value-based models that are 'purpose-led' to facilitate dialogue in companies. And she is writing a book drawing on her experiences.

Henderson summarized: 'It's not so much what we do that makes a difference but as “who we are being”. It's values along the lines of humility, forgiveness, compassion, future generations, vision and wisdom that make all the difference.’

Social responsibility in the mining sector

Lucy Parker
‘If banking and the financial service sectors have become the 'ugly' players in the public's imagination, then the mining sector comes at the top of the list of people's perception of corporates behaving badly,’ Lucy Parker asserted.

Based on mining's environmental reputation, Parker said she is often asked the question: ‘How can you possibly have a book about the positive impact of business in the world and cover a mining company?’ ‘People are viscerally opposed to mining because we wish we didn't have to do it. But everyone today is dependent on mining activities—it is absolutely all around us,’ she commented. 'Now the top players have understood. They are the ones who are making the positive impact. When the top sets the standards others follow.’

Parker provided insights, citing industry viewpoints: 'In those days, we [mining industry business leader] didn't know what the environmental impact was. We didn't care. Then we started to see what the impact was and we had to do something about it.' She observed: ‘They are under huge constraints, often self-imposed, to manage the environment all around them.’

A critical moment was when mining industry leaders came together to create their own manifesto, realising, 'We can't do this. There is a case to answer.'

‘Mining companies are now getting their act together, replenishing water supplies and supplying clean water to villages.’ On the socio-economic side they are also huge actors in local employment, 'lifting the skills base for their employee network.’ More crucially they are ‘kick starting the economy around them: from tiny little businesses set up deliberately to support the local supply chain and workers, by building the skills base of the countries they are in, to turning them into global competitive countries in their own right.’

Following a lively debate with the audience, the key message of the evening was that the relationship to corporate culture had ‘an impact on all our souls'. Transparency and the need to respond to social responsibility change was by far the best approach for big business leaders.

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