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I am angry with Stephen Green. I am angry in part because HSBC’s former chairman (now Lord Green) presided over a financial institution where, it turns out, oversight was so distant that large-scale tax avoidance schemes could be peddled by a Swiss subsidiary, in breach of, at the very least, the spirit, if not the letter, of good banking.

But I am also angry because retrospective suspicion of his motives and his actions while in charge of the bank has put another crack in trust in business and set back attempts by the likes of Unilever’s Paul Polman to promote purposeful leadership.

In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, Lord Green spearheaded a movement to restore values and morality to the financial sector and to business in general. The former executive, also an ordained priest, now stands accused of hypocrisy — and hypocrites are, oddly, often harder to forgive than villains.

As I wrote last year, “purpose” in business is highly vulnerable to “overuse, abuse, breach of corporate promise and general cynicism”. But research, experience and basic common sense suggest that instilling meaning into the workplace is an important way of encouraging people to do more and better work — much more important than money, the motive for many in the upper echelons of banking and finance.

In 2012, I gathered together 17 people from different backgrounds — including a priest, a financier, a multimillionaire philanthropist and a homeless vendor of the Big Issue magazine — to ask them why they worked. Almost all said it was to earn money. But they also said they assigned meaning to what they did. Any business that can satisfy those two basic desires is likely to gain an edge over those that do not.

Lord Green recognised that fact. He published a book, Good Value, in 2009, that addressed directly the difficulty of “living and working in all the ambiguity and imperfection” of what he called the “global bazaar”. He also spoke uncompromisingly and often about how companies should be able to answer the question “how does the business we do contribute profitably and sustainably to the common good?”

This kind of talk is now even more common than it was then. Purpose was once again a CEO buzzword at this year’s World Economic Forum. Companies continue to take down their mission statements and tack up declarations of purpose instead. But, despite the efforts of academics and consultants — abetted by sometimes overeager communications departments — purpose remains a worryingly flimsy construct erected on what should be a firm foundation of the quest for fulfilling jobs.

At least three things have to happen to dispel the idea that purpose, unlike profit, is “fluffy nonsense”, in the words of one sceptical FTcolleague.

First, companies need better tools to measure whether their “purpose is fit for purpose”, as Cheryl Grise of EY puts it. The consultancy is one of many selling their services to clients in search of meaning. This trend is bound to add to the scepticism: professional services groups are themselves trying to retrofit purpose on to their own moneymaking models. But their hypothesis makes sense. When strategic advantage is transient, values shared by staff, customers and suppliers are a more reliable engine for improvement than the periodic crises that usually trigger corporate transformation.

Second, researchers and companies must establish a much firmer causal link between the “fluff” and the gritty requirement to make a profit and outperform competitors.

Third — one big lesson from Lord Green’s embarrassment — leaders need to take care their sermons do not overstate their ability to ensure their organisations live up to their ideals.

Even Unilever’s Mr Polman is starting to face criticism for not translating social responsiveness into more impressive growth at the consumer products company. He remains determined, though, to use the scale of Unilever to address global problems, and adamant that other groups should follow suit.

In late 2009, I asked Lord Green why he did not head a smaller bank, where he would be more certain his ideals would be consistently applied. “This institution has a far greater power to do good,” he said, echoing Mr Polman.

Alas, each time a big company with that lofty aim and power falls short, it becomes harder to make the urgent case for reform to the silent majority.

andrew.hill@ft.com
Twitter: @andrewtghill

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