It was an honour to host Professor Muhammad Yunus at the official launch of the School of Business & Applied Technology and the university re-branding event.
He challenged us as a university to inspire and develop social entrepreneurs, with a “self-less” mindset to solve social problems. He re-inforced our own views that values and social purpose should be at the heart of our approach to business; to counter the prevailing zeitgeist that business is driven by a “what’s in it for me?” mindset, and the idea that “making money” is the end game, regardless of the means for achieving that.
My book Risky Strategy is a text for what I call: “Strategic Pioneers”. Professor Yunus is a great example of one.
In the book, I refer to the research we have conducted at Hult Ashridge on corporate approaches to modern slavery, a very real social issue which is tied into the supply chains of many global organisations. And I ask the question:
“Is business part of the problem, or part of the solution”
We know which answer Professor Yunus would promote.
Extract from “Risky Strategy”
Today, we are witnessing Jenga towers toppling and collapsing, towers that previously looked strong. Others on firmer foundations remain strong. And new towers are being built all the time.
In our research on modern slavery, we have reached a situation where businesses at the end of a complex global supply chains, primarily the big brand retailers, are in a position to impact positively on the welfare of millions of workers in and from developing countries. Historically, these businesses have competed to offer the best deal for consumers in the developed nations. This is the essence of the capitalist model as originally set out by Adam Smith in his 18th century book The Wealth of Nations (Smith, 1997). We have international legislation that fiercely protects this competitive principle, on the basis that it protects the ‘paying public’ from exploitation.
However, we know today that in return for this privilege, there is still exploitation of workers that contributes to delivering this consumer benefit. We know from our research that the only reasonable ways in which the developed world’s retailers and other major corporates can change this for the better is by collaborating – to maximise the influence and impact where it matters, including with national governments. Ironically, in the UK and other countries, the latest legislation on modern slavery is a catalyst that encourages this collaboration. But this flies in the face of naturally competitive instincts and competition law. Is this a time for bold leaders to challenge this paradigm? Could this be a time for a positive Black Swan?
Indeed, is this a time for business to become part of the solution, instead of part of the problem?
Timothy Fort, Professor of Ethics at George Washington University Business School, and Director of that university’s program on ‘Peace through Commerce’ (Fort, 2007), argues that for such a time as this, business itself has a role to play in bringing ethical leadership to the world in which it has become a core element. He develops classical ’theory of the firm’ thinking: is the purpose of business to maximise shareholder value, which gets further translated and simplified to maximise profit, or is it fundamentally to bring about positive social change?
In Chapter 7, when I described the concept of broad framing, I listed Paul Polman’s vision for Unilever as bringing positive social benefit to the world’s consumers – the broad framing was that this would ultimately generate positive value to shareholders, even if the short-term picture was less clear. My old company, and Unilever arch-rival, Procter & Gamble, also articulated one of their ‘Winning Aspirations’ along similar lines: “To meaningfully improve the lives of the world’s consumers” (Lafley & Martin, 2013).