We are in a period of unprecedented social and political change. The #MeToo movement, populist politics, the banning of plastic straws: love it or hate it, we’re in the midst of a paradigm shift away from institutional governance and towards people power.
The connected economy of the internet has allowed huge decisions to be dictated by what are effectively digital referendums; some good, some potentially harmful, but all undoubtedly historical in their nature. We are at the tip of the iceberg and there is still significant change ahead.
I am optimistic that much of this change is for the good. As Martin Luther King said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it tends towards justice.’ Of course, King had no idea that digital connectivity would accelerate this arc so its effect would be noticeable not just in generations, but in a few short years.
History has a habit of looking unfavourably towards individuals and corporations who don’t hold up to the scrutiny of modern morality. This is evidenced by the demonization of all slave traders, colonisers and sexual exploiters of history, who often were simply doing what was ‘perfectly legal’ in their period of history.
It’s difficult to tell how history will look back at us now, but the signs are there. Our descendants will be astounded by our generation’s wasteful nature. They will be horrified that we’re so destructive to our own planet, that we didn’t act on climate change, that we were so overtly misogynistic and racist. Perhaps they will even judge us for eating animals. And with history moving faster than ever before, I believe we will look back with disbelief in as little as a decade.
So what can we do to make sure we are on the right side of history, especially when ethical moorings will change as soon as 2030? What steps can we take to ensure our legacy as a business leader is viewed favourably? I give my five top tips for future-proofing your reputation.
1) Imagine your customers viewing your decisions on the front cover of a newspaper
In the modern age, ill intent has few places to hide. In just a few years, we’ve come from miniscule recording equipment being the stuff of governments and spies to almost every human on earth having a tiny personal recording device that can instantly share content across the entire planet. Who knows what technology will be developed in the future? What we do know is that it will likely make it even harder for the morally abject to hide.
While on the face of it this could have been an Orwellian nightmare, one thing Orwell got wrong is that he assumed the institutions would be the ones doing the watching. The opposite has happened - it’s put more power in the hands of the general populous. The digital panopticon is not without its dark side, arguably causing lynchings in India and precipitating the Arab Spring. But it also has its good side, by calling out corrupt politicians or business leaders.
The only solution to survival in this always-recording milieu is to act with empathy for your stakeholders in every decision you make. How would they react if your opinions or actions were plastered across the homepage of the Huffington Post?
2) Do what is right, rather than what is negotiable
Large corporations have huge buying power, which has given them even more influence in negotiations. These corporations have identified a shift in public mood, hence why they’re investing so heavily in corporate social responsibility (CSR). But history will look back at the choices the directors of these companies made, and CSR will be cynically viewed in the light of companies investing even more into their procurement departments. If you must, think of your negotiations in terms of a branding exercise with longevity. Because consumers of the future will avoid the brands who operated sweatshops and drove their SME suppliers out of business in their relentless pursuit of profits.
The idea that everything is negotiable is a hangover from the ‘80s business ethos of dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest. However, the economy is not a zero-sum game, and getting one over on your partners/clients/customers simply creates a net loss for society. This is also a breeding ground for unsustainable growth, which has led to us pillaging our planet.
I strongly feel that we can resolve many of the problems in the world if we simply reframed how we approached a negotiation, thinking about the human and societal implications of the agreements we reach, rather than just the bottom line.
3) In 2030 will your decision still be seen as fair and just?
Now imagine it’s 2030 and environmentalism, economic justice, and true social/gender/racial equality aren’t just fringe ideas, but are the mainstream. Will your decisions hold up to scrutiny, or will you be held to account by your colleagues, and ultimately the general public? Will you be safe from #DecisionsHaveConsequences?
On the subject of sweatshops, I believe the next #MeToo movement is likely to come from the world of global business, where company directors have allowed so many workers to be exploited in developing nations through low pay and frankly life-threatening working conditions. Additionally they have made decisions that have caused untold damage to the environments of developing nations.
I can envision a time in the near future where whistleblowers call out their bosses when they make morally abject decisions that affect the lives of workers overseas. They will leak emails of the ones who wilfully caused rainforests to be cut down or rivers polluted. We’re seeing the shoots of this now, but at the moment it’s the faceless corporations who are being singled out, and they are able to counteract this by increasing their public relations budget. In an age where it’s easy to get hold of emails and call recordings, it’s not hard to imagine the next step being an active campaign by the public to hold the decision makers to account.
4) Measure your company by more than just its ability to make money
But despite the progress we’ve made as a society, it’s not all optimistic. Some of the biggest companies in the world are currently making vast fortunes through exploiting their workers. I predict that unless they change their ways, history won’t look kindly at Walmart, Sports Direct and Amazon, but conversely it will at Riverford, John Lewis and Google.
We live in a capitalist society, so we claim forgiveness for focusing on the bottom line with every decision we make. However, I predict that history won’t look too kindly on the companies that passively played the game of making endless profits without actively seeking to improve the lives of their employees and customers.
Some argue that we’re moving into a period of post-capitalism, where markets still drive the economy, but intelligent machines are able to overlay human wellbeing as a significant factor to ensure the destructive nature of unfettered free markets is reigned in. In this scenario, it’s possible to imagine that we programme these machines to be optimised not just for profit but also for the quality of life of all stakeholders within a company - i.e. directors, employees, partners, suppliers, shareholders and customers, all in one go.
The interesting thing about this idea is that you don’t need to invest heavily into artificial intelligence to future-proof your organisation for post-capitalism, you just need to start thinking about how you can improve the lives of every person your company touches. What’s great about this is that most HR departments are already seeing the benefits of an empowered workforce, evidenced by the table footballs and treat markets cropping up in the offices of many of the major tech companies, and the switch many corporations are making towards employee ownership or setting up as social enterprises.
5) Listen to your moral compass
Whilst we’re on the subject, another thing history won’t look favourably on is the billionaires who hoarded wealth rather than reinvesting it, who facilitated the greatest gap in wealth distribution the planet has ever experienced. I left the world of banking because the system was broken, that it was designed to help drive wealth to the top and keep the rest of us blinded to how inequitable it actually is. My intuition screamed to me that this was morally bankrupt, even though culture currently still praises those who hoard wealth in a hollow pursuit of temporary praise.
I realised I could apply my knowledge of economics and finance to help regions that have been exploited, rather than continue to be part of that exploitation. I also realised that taking a long term, sustainable approach to the economic development of these resource-rich regions would help facilitate greater wealth generation for all, in a way that works in harmony with nature instead of against it. I co-founded Blueprints because in my gut I knew it was the right thing to do, and that I didn’t need to compromise on being rewarded financially for my efforts - indeed the more successful I am, the more successful others become with me. Equally, I’m very aware that I couldn’t live with myself if I were one of the 8 people who held greater wealth than more than half the planet.
What is your intuition telling you? Are you helping to generate wealth symbiotically for yourself and for those less fortunate, in a way that’s harmonious with nature? Or are you purposely holding back others in a hollow pursuit of wealth or status, with little regard for what state you might leave the planet in for future generations? I predict that history will judge those who are dishonest with themselves by much higher standards than we currently feel are acceptable.
David Solomon, co-founder, Blueprints
Image source: Shutterstock/ESB Professional