It is clear we are living through a time of intense change – a change that if channelled properly could lead to radical and widespread shifts in the role business has in society.

Inequality and fairness are increasingly being seen as relevant not just for individuals and organisations but for communities and society: in economic, as well as social and environmental frames.  These three are inextricably linked.  In business, as in our daily lives, we create value and consume resources from each: our markets and customers respond to this, our supply chains and workforces reflect it in their stability and commitment, and the value we create for business owners and other stakeholders is defined by it.

Today’s agenda for business reflects these broadening viewpoints, and an effective business must recognise and embrace this if it is to thrive in the future. This involves, among other things, engaging with issues such as gender pay gaps, modern slavery, ethical trading, climate crisis, biodiversity loss and technological advancement.  Which stakeholder interests should directors be focusing on and what are the most effective ways to do this to secure a sustainable future for businesses and the communities in which they operate?

These are some of the questions that brought us to conversations on 28th June 2018 with a range of curious leaders from businesses and professions, charities and policy units.  Perhaps it’s best summed up by asking, “how can we engage with our communities and world, organisationally and individually, and what does it mean to act responsibly at this time?”

And, certainly, “this time” is one of turbulence and confusion for businesses and communities. 

Which is why the role of business and organisational leaders is so important in terms of making a positive contribution to a more sustainable and responsible world.  But where to start?  The range of priorities raised in our June 28th meeting was bold and diverse.

There were many different themes raised in the group discussions.  These included:

  • Is it even the right framing to talk about “responsible organisations” when a deeper level of systemic challenge is called for?
  • A curiosity about whether there is likely to be any fundamental change for big businesses, or is it more about media froth rather than substantive action.
  • The problem of the global scale “bystander” – in which people don’t act because it feels there is no chance of changing things, or that power lies elsewhere. 
  • How to deal with power, including the entrenched power of an older generation? Who gets to set the agenda matters greatly.
  • How to connect people so that they feel they can act together.
  • The importance of bringing the imagination and heart into decision-making, the sense that the rational mind is not enough.
  • Identifying the right relationship with targets and measurement – the double-edged nature of measurement in providing focus and at the same time inhibiting action, by creating boundaries on achievement.

 Drawing these together we seem to find three big challenges:

  • Framing resources and value for business in the three frames of social, environmental and economic
  • Finding or becoming actors to lead from the inside out
  • Getting practical and identifying what we can do now.

This is a small snapshot of many passionate conversations, from people who care deeply about the place of responsible business in our world.

But such a wide range of choices is not necessarily a good friend to effective action. It can be a baffling agenda. How do we pick the action that will be the right one in our context?  As one participant said afterwards, “I just don’t know where to start with this. What are the practical actions I can take to get some genuine traction in my organisation?”

That question and its plea for some practical action help us set the agenda for the next event and the next stage of our work as a community.

It seemed central to the whole event that alert attention and continued learning will be absolutely vital in making any effective response, as a company, NGO or in society.  Therefore, we are offering to create a series of learning groups to enable peer-to-peer support, challenge and knowledge sharing. We have already sent out a message to everyone who participated in the event to test whether there is enough appetite for this, and extend this invitation to those in business who have expressed interest in the agenda but were unavailable on the day (please email [email protected] if you are interested in finding out more).

We were also struck by the central place that purpose is playing inside business today. We see many people asking how to develop a clear practical link between the purpose of a business and the value it creates, for itself and for the world.

Our next event will therefore focus on exactly this question: how can each of us – whether in corporate and organisational roles or as advisors and catalysts – help ourselves and others to think clearly and practically about the place of purpose and its connection with what we do.

To frame this discussion we will invite Professor Victoria Hurth, from Plymouth Business School and Carole Bond to lead a session on the latest application of their work on Enhanced Value Framework – a way of putting purpose at the heart of marketing and value creation. We will announce a date for this autumn event soon.

We’ve started the conversation with many ideas.  We propose that our collective energy now moves towards thinking practically about how we can turn ideas into action.


by Chris Nichols, Philippa Hardman, Jim Clifford and David Hunter