“Every board needs to be exposed to things that make them uncomfortable, and make them realise how disproportionately comfortable we are.”
These are the words of my friend Mark Goyder, who was consistently challenging when he led think tank Tomorrow’s Company, and who remains challenging now. The words are quoted in a recent remarkably accessible report, What is the role of business in creating a fairer future?, from Board Intelligence, a tech business that provides a portal for board papers and reporting.
Based on more than a dozen roundtable discussions including over 100 business leaders from a full range of scales and natures of organisations (most of them much more senior than me), the report is deeply engaging and challenging. Perhaps it is invigorated by the fact that the discussions included not just established individuals but also 60 future leaders. In my experience, the very way in which Board Intelligence sought to have the conversations ensured that they were rich and inclusive rather than narrow in focus.
“Not only are most businesses not doing enough to tackle unfairness, in many cases — such as climate change — they’re exacerbating it,” the report reads. It challenges us all to do better in terms of opportunity, environment and technology, recognising the need to address the constraints imposed by the current way we assess what is valued, and the way in which leaders are insulated from many people’s ordinary lives, and the consequences of their decision-making.
There is much that is highly thought-provoking in what is a short report. I particularly liked this simple comment from the ever-thoughtful Baroness Patience Wheatcroft, now a non-executive director at St James’s Place: “I’d like to make the mission of every company: people working for them didn’t need government handouts to survive.” The discussion of opportunity and how to unpick barriers to opportunity, and to stop them developing once again, is especially powerful.
And I really like one of the very simplest ideas in the paper, of adding an empty chair at the board table. It reflects the beautiful old tradition, typical in remote rural communities where mutual assistance is provided without being asked, of always being ready to welcome an unexpected guest. But in this case the guest is an implicitly excluded one: the stakeholders who are not represented within the board room. The chair is a reminder that there are other voices that are not heard and need at the very least to be considered.
This feels like an interesting beginning, though it is only that. It’s welcome that the Board Intelligence bunch are committed to pursuing these discussions further and trying to uncover ways that companies can practically deliver more fairness. They invite us all to get involved.
What is the Role of Business in Creating a Fairer Future?, December 2021, Board Intelligence