Coming back to the office will bring many challenges and our leaders have to consider and embrace all of them. It requires both considered thinking and an open mindset.
It is important to be aware of the cobra effect. This is the unintended consequences of the decisions made and the actions taken. The term cobra was coined by the economist Horst Siebert based on the story of the British government offering a bounty for every dead cobra in an Indian village being overrun by cobras. Very soon enterprising people began to breed snakes for the income it produced. We so often see such undesirable results when management make decisions on areas such as health and safety or infection control. It would be foolish of business leaders to make rash decisions as we emerge from the restrictions of the pandemic. In my view every business is different, and the leadership team must consider carefully the unintended consequences of the actions they take.
The aim should be to emerge with a better business, which may require adjusting the business model. Emerging from the pandemic creates such an opportunity to improve the business for all stakeholders. A business is no longer just about profit as Friedman once managed to persuade us. Profit does not take account of the impact of a business on the rest of society. Profit is an easy game to manipulate, and not even just through accounting but by underinvesting in people or other assets that benefit customers. Even more important is that a myopic focus on hitting the numbers kills innovation. It damages the long-term goals of the business. On top of that it is not good for the soul. As a leader do you really want to be known for the short-term profit you made or for the legacy that you created?
We live in an unequal society and we aren’t going to change it soon. Much as we should and as much as we know it is the right thing to do, there is far too much self-interest at stake. The pandemic has only exposed further the harsh truth of societal inequalities, and while businesses consider how to return to normal, there’s a bigger issue too.
As embarrassed as we are to acknowledge it, we are not going to give up our privileges. We send our children to better schools because we can pay for the privilege. We go to private health hospitals for non-emergency operations because we can pay for the privilege. We live in leafy attractive areas with large houses because we can pay for the privilege. There are very few of us going to give up those privileges. So we will continue to live in an unequal society because we perpetuate it. When we talk about creating an equal society, we mean so long as we don’t have to give up our privileges.
So perhaps the task is just too difficult. And perhaps the real task that we should focus on is creating opportunities, real opportunities. Opportunities that may help to level the playing field. No longer pretending that we do so through our nice talk about equality but really doing it. Making it really happen. It is within the gift of every leader – that ability to make it happen.
It is of no value to preside over an organisation where a few people raise money for good causes by running marathons or digging gardens or painting walls that in many cases will have been painted three or four times in the last two years.
Leadership is everything. It all comes from the top. So creating opportunity shouldn’t be delegated to a CSR team in the bowels of the building. If we really mean to make a difference, their office should be next to the office of the CEO or the chairman, and even more than that the CEO or chairman should ensure that it is integral to the business.
It is about leading from the front. Focusing on real social change will have an amazingly positive effect on your business. Vision is about where you are heading, and values are the glue that binds the company to make the right decisions. Culture, buzz and wanting to go to work every day is all about creating excitement about why you are there and the positive good that you are doing by being there. Who would want to leave a business that makes them feel that good?
Within a square mile of every business there is every challenge possible. It is a microcosm of every inequality that we face throughout the country; disability, a lack of opportunity, old age, mental health, loneliness, poverty. Am I going to sit there and ignore it and tell myself it is the problem of government with its bureaucracy, its conflict and often ineptitude, its short term approach and its waste of public funds? Or am I going to do something about it? Change brings about opportunity.
Darryl Cooke is Co-Founder of gunnercooke, a full-service challenger law firm. He is a barrister and a solicitor, as well as being author of Private Equity; Law and Practice (7th edition) and To Innovate or Not To Innovate.
Darryl and gunnercooke launched the Inspiring Leadership campaign to encourage business leaders to act with moral purpose. The series features a short story, The Square Mile, which is available on Amazon, a magazine compiling extracts from some of the world’s best thought leaders including Vivek H. Murthy and Peter Singer, and the Inspiring Leadership Podcast, which has welcomed guests such as Sir John Timpson and Sir Peter Fahy.