The rights and wrongs of management books on social issues
MODERN EXECUTIVES are often told they should worry about a lot more than their balance-sheets. They should be aware of their company’s environmental impact, of how well they treat their employees and suppliers, and whether their workforce is sufficiently diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity.
Sometimes, this pressure comes from customers unhappy with the company’s stance on an issue. Sometimes employees demand that their firms take action, as when Google dropped a contract with the Pentagon after workers complained. But many businesspeople don’t need a push: they are strong believers in what are known as ESG (environmental, social and governance) issues.
During the lockdown your columnist has worked his way through four weighty tomes by managers who argue that companies have a broader purpose than simply making a profit. The books were “Trailblazer” by Marc Benioff, “Green Swans” by John Elkington, “Restoring the Soul of Business” by Rishad Tobaccowala and “Share” by Chris Yates and Linda Jingfang Cai.
在封城期间，本专栏作者啃完了四本由管理者撰写的大部头著作，他们都认为公司的目标不止于获利。它们是马克·贝尼奥夫（Marc Benioff）的《开拓者》（Trailblazer）、约翰·埃尔金顿（John Elkington）的《绿天鹅》（Green Swans）、里沙德·托巴科瓦拉（Rishad Tobaccowala）的《重塑商业的灵魂》（Restoring the Soul of Business），以及克里斯·叶兹（Chris Yates）和蔡婧芳的《共享》（Share）。
The danger is that managers use their books to opine on every social issue of the moment. Mr Elkington is a social entrepreneur who has co-founded groups such as SustainAbility, an environmental consultancy. The idea behind “Green Swans” is to focus on changes in the economy that will lead to environmental breakthroughs but his message is lost in a miasma of mixed metaphors. In the space of two pages he writes about “10x thinking”, “an exponential mindset” and the “Chrysalis economy”, while warning that the world is both heading into “some sort of historic U-bend” and backed into “the mother of all corners”. Quite how a corner can have a mother, the author fails to explain.
In “Share” Mr Yates, general manager of learning and development at Microsoft, and Ms Cai, an “organisation design specialist”, fall into a different trap. The dust jacket promises a book about “new business models based on sharing, reciprocity and co-operation”. Instead readers get a rambling mix of personal biography and economic history.
Readers will find more useful lessons from Mr Benioff, the founder of Salesforce. His book is a personal history of how he built his software giant, while donating 1% of its services, profit and employees’ time to help non-profit organisations and charities. He argues that “companies and their leaders simply can no longer turn a blind eye to the issues that matter to their employees, their customers and the communities on which they do business”. To cite one notable example, Salesforce opposed a bill in Indiana that would have allowed business owners to discriminate against LGBTQ customers (after Mr Benioff’s intervention, Indiana’s then governor, Mike Pence, revised the bill to prevent such discrimination).
The book provides some useful lessons for chief executives who might assume their company is free from bias. Mr Benioff admits that for a long time he assumed his company paid sexes and races equally. But a review showed that it did not and three rounds of pay adjustments were needed before equalisation occurred. This focus on social issues has not stopped Salesforce from making money for shareholders. It also regularly ranks as one of the best places to work.
Perhaps the best of the books is Mr Tobaccowala’s. That is because the author, a senior adviser at Publicis Groupe, an advertising and communications firm, has a clear focus: how to ensure you can hire, then inspire, the right workers in the knowledge economy. “Employees who find work meaningful are highly productive, agile and committed,” he writes, adding that talented workers are in a more powerful bargaining position in the current economy. He also argues that companies can be too obsessed with data, and not enough with employee motivation: “The best businesses find ways to marry the math and the magic.”
The book is clearly written and full of sensible and practical suggestions. They include assessing all meetings to eliminate those that waste time and suggesting that all employees spend 20% of each month trying to enhance their skills.
Both Mr Tobaccowala and Mr Benioff reflect on how companies can pursue both broader social goals and the desire to grow. Indeed, they argue that the aims are complementary, rather than contradictory. They also demonstrate the benefits of practical advice over grand philosophising about every social issue of the day. Those lessons even apply to managers who aren’t writing books.