‘The Key: How Corporations Succeed by Solving the World’s Toughest Problems’, by Lynda Gratton – review

Paean to companies puts too much faith in the elite. A review of ‘The Key’, by Lynda Gratton

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It is brave – some may say idiotic – to write a love letter to corporations. Yet it is a two-part letter that opens and closes Lynda Gratton’s latest book, The Key. In fact the entire book is a love letter to corporations. This is both its strength and weakness.

The author is no fool. The professor of management practice at London Business School has written thought-provoking books on the changing role of work and corporations, most notably The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here, a bold synthesis of the myriad changes to our working lives.

In her latest book, Prof Gratton’s paean to companies is clear-eyed. She writes that she has “full knowledge that there has probably never been a time when global corporations and those who lead them have been held in such low esteem”. After all, she hears complaints from her MBA students that executives “greenwash” companies with superficial do-gooding efforts. Prof Gratton reads employee surveys that talk of dehumanising work and stress, making it “completely understandable why some commentators believe that those who lead corporations have lost their moral compass”.

Despite their capacity for doing harm, she believes they can be a force for good. Indeed the world demands it. The pace of change today, she writes, requires corporations to take a greater role in the affairs of the world. “Far from being one of the causes of trouble . . . corporations could and should play significant and central role in finding the innovations that will allow us to face these new challenges.”

So, she exhorts executives to renew rather than exploit, and to take stock of their impact on the planet and community. Companies must be resilient, they must support their neighbourhood and ensure their supply chain is ethical. In short: to be worthy recipients of her love letter.

The book is dense, packed with interesting examples of companies that have experimented with, for example, open innovation. Deserving of special attention is Procter & Gamble’s use of its global external networks – collaborations with government, private labs and academic and research institutions – to come up with new products. Not only does it benefit the vast consumer goods company, it helps external researchers too.

Corporations must take a greater role in the affairs of the world

However, the problem with love letters is they can be a bit too sappy. At times Prof Gratton seems drunk on the Kool-Aid. There are one too many “reach outs” for my liking, the kind of company jargon that labels the writer as one of them. We hear from upbeat human resources practitioners and chief executives but the book would have benefited from voices other than of those in charge. To say the author ignores corporate mistakes completely would be wrong. But even the examples she gives are sponsored by companies such as Tata Group, whose Dare to Try competition recognises efforts that failed to achieve the desired results. As the former chairman, Ratan Tata, explained: “Failure is a gold mine for a great company.”

It is the last chapters of the book on leadership that are the most compelling. As relations with consumers and shareholders become more direct, she suggests that leaders cultivate diverse networks rather than sycophantic cliques. This, she hopes, will give bosses the “innovation, courage and determination to provide the key that unlocks at least some of the problems of the world”. A noble ideal. I hope she is correct.

The Key: How Corporations Succeed by Solving the World’s Toughest Problems, by Lynda Gratton. McGraw Hill Education, RRP£22.99

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