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Dark Roast Double Shot: Where and How to Draw the Line
The sharp contentious discourse in society and public life born of social, cultural, economic and religious difference that influences us as individuals, can constitute serious threat to business if not navigated with sensitivity and deep understanding.
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The view that the three most important factors that will predicate our future are rapid transformational adoption of technology, rise of economy-centric nationalism and the often-schismatic nature of societal intercourse has been argued individually or collectively by many. It is really a blinding glimpse of the obvious. Some events in the history of humankind always accelerate changes already in motion and the pandemic has been just that.
But God as usual will lie in the details. The opportunities and challenges that they collectively or individually throw up for us as the human race, as also specifically for the world of business. The disruption caused by technology and economy-centric nationalism will spawn many opportunities for business as well as challenges. However, the sharp contentious discourse in society and public life born of social, cultural, economic and religious difference that influences us as individuals, can constitute serious threat to business if not navigated with sensitivity and deep understanding.
In the context of the prevailing social environment here are some cardinal principles that would be good to keep in mind to navigate your business through the pitfalls of possible social backlash while ensuring that you contribute meaningfully to a progressive and equitable social structure.
Respect the tenets of business
The intent of a company is to create economic value by engaging in legal business activity and thereby create returns on the capital invested by the shareholders. As businesses draw not only upon the resources of the shareholders but also deeply affect others such as employees, partners, society etc. they too are considered to be stakeholders in the business. This reality and the consequent responsibility has been recognised by progressive leaders across the spectrum. The primary responsibility of anyone engaged in managing or executing business is to ensure that interests of shareholders and stakeholders are protected. You bring your skills, but you represent those who are invested in the company.
Business is a very valuable economic asset. When it comes under strain the pain is transferred to the entire community as a whole, in part or sum, depending on the magnitude of stress. This can have extremely serious consequences. Navigating business with success through times of volatility and uncertainty is the responsibility of management.
Successful brands and businesses over time acquire the power of influence. In a fractured social environment, like it is today, every view wants its proponents and will therefore constantly exhort those with influence to support their cause. It is easy to be lured in to the debate and dialectic but honestly that is none of the business of business. In fact, very often treading this ground can create grave risk to business health and continuity which is against shareholder and stakeholder interest and therefore not kosher.
The only way to find the right path are the answers to these two questions. Is this good for our business? Is this truly required to deliver business results? Relentless focus on business and shareholder and stakeholder interest to the exclusion of any distraction outside of that ambit is the best way to successfully steer your business through social tension.
Dive deep, don’t skim the surface
Should brands and businesses then be oblivious to or avoid social reality and have no role to play in the development of a just and progressive society? On the contrary, they can take a number of steps to ensure worthwhile contribution that will help build long term equity and sustainability for business. It is not about grandstanding but diving deep and making a material difference.
The most important step is to internally adopt and espouse the values that you would like to see in people at large. Be what you want the world to be. Bring in diversity, inclusion, gender equality, meritocracy, respect for the individual, concern for environment, regard for laws, a work-life balance that respects both. Every right step that you take in turn influences many people and creates a ripple effect. And if there are enough ripples, waves of change won’t be far behind.
Conflict in society is an effect of many factors that over years and decades are at work as the root cause of the events that unfold at a point in time. They may be as simple as low literacy due to economic reasons, paucity of facilities or as complex as indoctrination by motivated interest groups to a point of view. If indeed your business sustainability and predictability depends on a less volatile and intolerant society as it well may, consult the experts and work in collaboration with them at creating positive influences and interventions at the grass root level to bring about real change. Every small change matters.
The shortest path to glory is not necessarily the best
Conflicting ideologies in society create really energised high decibel often divisive debates. The easiest way to garner noticeability is to provoke or publicly support an idea that has a constituency of ideological opposition. Irrespective of the merits of the assertions this may involve considerable risk to business. This short path to fame is often the most slippery slope.
Business leaders must remember that while it is their right to have their own belief on issues and it is entirely their prerogative to support it in any manner that they wish to in their individual lives, a business platform is not theirs to exercise that choice. Primarily because it falls outside the ambit of activities that is required to run successful business.
In times such as this it is incumbent on the Boards of companies to use their wisdom and authority vested as representatives of the shareholders to advise, guide and indeed if need be to instruct the management of the company to focus on building business in a manner that ensures the sanctity of the faith of the shareholders and stakeholders.
Managing business enshrines a huge responsibility and it is best done within the confines of reason and propriety. The best knows where to draw a line. Summed up appropriately in a quote of unresolved authorship “The only difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits”.
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(Nitish Mukherjee is a Board Member, Advisor, Coach & Mentor. The content of this article is his personal opinion.)