Time to become an activist-manager…?

Written by Nigel Girling CMgr CCMI Wednesday 26 May 2021
In the post-Covid era, managers must speak truth to power and stand up for those disadvantaged by old-school practices
Two women having conversation at work

There’s a lot of talk about doing good these days. It’s become a mantra of advertising agencies and a staple of corporate PR communications. Everybody wants you to believe they are ethical, squeaky clean and a positive force in the world.

So what should ‘good work’ or ‘doing good’ really mean? More to the point, how do we encourage and enable our leaders and organisations to do it?

Starting with the idea of ‘good’; we have to first ask, good for whom?

Many thinkers, writers and academics now believe that the business model within which the majority of us work is seriously flawed and must be re-engineered for the sake of all of us.

A quick look at the widening divide between those who have and those who have not; the numbers of people sleeping rough; the damage being done to the planet; the huge increase in mental health challenges; the equally huge and widening gap between the pay of executives and the average worker; the cult of merit-free celebrity that would astonish even Andy Warhol; the exploitation of the disadvantaged through cheap labour… There are many indicators that ‘good work’ is in short supply.

From my perspective, the only good that is worth pursuing is the ‘greater good’ – that which is good for society at large and all stakeholders. This is not the sort of good that many organisations and individual leaders are encouraged to pursue. For many (but not all) leaders, ‘good’ means good for their shareholders, good for their organisation or, often, good for their tribe, and good for themselves.

The way we reward and recognise leaders encourages this. Targets that are often related to individual performance and financial achievement; executive pay linked to share performance and financial returns; bonus systems that favour those at the top where only very little ‘trickles down’ to lower levels; supplier terms and employee remuneration squeezed hard to enable greater profits and dividends. The model is designed to give a very distorted and partial view of ‘good’.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many organisations and many leaders who are seeking to change this and are championing a more sustainable business model that is more inclusive and good for society.

Unfortunately, some of those reading an article like this will tell themselves they are in the latter, virtuous group when, in reality, their attitudes, circumstances, behaviour and actions sit more comfortably in the old model.

Take the idea of ‘net zero’. The purpose of such a concept is to reduce the negative impact of business on the planet and therefore to reduce climate change. So far so good. However, take a closer look at what many corporations are actually doing to meet their net zero PR and marketing messages and you’ll find that the damage they are doing to the planet is actually unaltered and the business activities unchanged. They are simply offsetting their carbon emissions through initiatives such as planting trees. Well, more trees is good news for sure, but is that really compensating for the destruction of the environment in their theatres of operation? Is it providing a better future for those who will be, in the long term, negatively affected by their activities? Or is it just a case of smoke and mirrors while continuing to exploit resources and damage the many to further enrich the few? You decide.

Returning to the beginning: good work, good outcomes.

Managers and leaders need to stand up and influence the way our organisations operate. We need to speak truth to power and we need to stand up for those who are disadvantaged by current practices.

I’m not suggesting you stand outside your HQ waving a placard. Your influence is best used through the long game and a refusal to compromise your principles; through insidious influence in plans and meetings; through a few words in the right ear at the right time; by holding yourself and your leader colleagues to account for the true net effect of your organisation’s work.

Good work with good outcomes means good for the many and for society at large. It means good mental health for all, and it means inclusivity – where all have opportunities regardless of gender, ethnicity, beliefs, age, disability, sexual identity or background.

We can do this.

Find out more about doing good work by reading up on CMI's professional standards - a code of ethics and skills we believe all managers and leaders should adhere to.

Nigel Girling CMgr FCMI FInstLM FIIRSM FRSA is renowned as an influential thinker and is a regular contributor to expert panels, think-tanks, conferences and professional journals. As a Chartered Companion of CMI, he is one of a select group of thought leaders seeking to transform leadership for the new world. After 35 years as a CEO, influencer and mentor, his articles are often entertaining, challenging and definitely a sideways look at the key issues of leadership.

Nigel is head of centre at Inspirational Development Group (@InspirationalDG).

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