Make the journey your own

October 18, 2021

I made a bad decision last week, whilst walking in the Lake District. It was one of those experiences that make one cringe and then ask ‘Will I ever learn?’ I set out to climb a demanding mountain in the Western lakes.  I had looked at the map and all the options in the guidebook. I was clear what route I was going to take and why.  Then, near the start of my expedition, I met another walker, someone who lived locally. ‘Yes’, he told me, ‘your route is all very well. But I would suggest you go a different route. That’s my favourite.’

So I abandoned my plan.  I followed his advice. An hour later, I realised I had missed a vital landmark, deviated from the route he had recommended and was too far from the route I had planned. The promising path on which I had embarked gave way to a steep scramble through loose scree and impenetrable heather. In the end I had to turn back, in order to get home before dark, bitterly disappointed at the way my afternoon had turned out.

On my mind as I walked back down was the advice I was due to give a large group of second-year Indian MBA students to whom I was due to speak at the  weekend. And suddenly I realised that that afternoon I had become a living embodiment of the very trap I was warning them against!

My lecture was entitled ‘Am I Adding Value? ‘It took the form of a challenge to the students to think about their future actions and impacts in business at three levels. First in terms of how business activity is experienced by society. Working in the car industry for example. Did they know that, according to evidence published by the International Energy Agency SUVs – so-called Sports Utility Vehicles – were the second largest cause of the global rise in carbon dioxide emissions over the past decade, eclipsing all shipping, aviation, heavy industry and even lorries? How would they feel about a job which involved producing more SUVs?

Next inside the company: how do we judge the organisation we are thinking of associating with?  Are they adding value or, ultimately, destroying it. Consider these two company statements about the impact a company intends to have.

‘Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together’

 ‘In a free enterprise, the community is not just another stakeholder in business, but in fact the very purpose of its existence’

The first of these comes from Facebook, founded in 2004.  The second dates back from 1868. It comes from Jamsetsji Tata, founder of the Tata Group.

As whistle-blower Frances Haugen has told the Senate Commerce Committee Facebook repeatedly chooses to maximise online engagement instead of minimising harm to users. Facebook see its community as a means by which it can extract data and profit.  (Another conference speaker cited the clauses which Instagram customers must accept. These allowing it to own and exploit their data anywhere, anyhow, for ever.) Tata, by contrast, sees the community as an end not a means.

Afterwards I talked to a colleague from Delhi. She said that she was encouraged by a change in attitudes in the last five years. Of course there were the 5000 millionaires – 2% of the total – who migrated away from India last year. Yet among younger entrepreneurs, including the founders of ‘Unicorn’ companies, she encountered a desire to approach business in a more human way, and contribute to building a better India. She knew talented people who had had enough of working for Facebook and Amazon, walking away from lucrative paid jobs to do something which they could believe in.

With the students I discussed experiences of my own, which had taught me the dangers of conformity – of just fitting in to a company’s culture before working out one’s own individual purpose and values. I drew attention to the slippery ethical slope that comes with the words ‘Don’t worry. Everybody does it’. This prompted some questions that any interviewee might have ready for a company.

‘Can you tell me in your own words about this company’s purpose and values?’

‘Can you tell me what practical steps you take to ensure that these are upheld?’

‘Can you demonstrate to me that people of every background – irrespective of gender or ethnicity or religion, will be given a fair opportunity?’

‘Before this company approves a new algorithm what process does it go through to ensure that it is free of bias or discrimination? ‘

‘If my immediate manager was asking me to do something that made me uncomfortable, ethically, what would be my next step? ‘

To those recruiting talented graduates I would ask if they feel confident that they have adequate answers to such questions. To the students, my closing challenge was to clarify their priorities by writing their own obituary. I added

Ensure you are joining a company in which there can be an open conversation about personal and corporate values and beliefs, and how conflicts between these two are reconciled. Or start your own business.

Make sure that the journey is your own. Otherwise, by the time you have committed to your route up the mountain, it may be too late to turn back!’

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