The bottom line of a thriving business: a social agenda

Click to follow
The Independent Online
If I hear myself talking about the work ethic again, I think I'm going to puke. In my experience, it's been anguish rather than ethics that defines work. Running a company is like a marriage. When it's going well, it's fantastic. When it's not going well... This week has been memorable because it has been all about making the marriage work. Ninety-one senior Body Shop managers got together for a few days of reflection. Thank God! I was beginning to think we were dogged by "hurry sickness". Instead, the opportunity to kick back revived the creativity, camaraderie and fun that we've all been missing.

It used to be that we had no organisational charts, no systems, no marketing, no one-, five- or ten-year plan. We knew the first names of everybody, but the job description of no one. We had management by common values. And we were falling apart at the seams. But when we called in the "experts" we initiated an agonising process. I'm still not at all sure it was a success. As if it isn't already difficult enough trying to run a business with a distinct social agenda, it is even more arduous trying to fit this agenda into the disciplines of management, marketing, finance and operations. And I learnt during this major process of change that the moment when you've worn yourself out explaining the reorganisation is just about the moment that people get it. There is an incredible demand from employees for information, care-taking, compassion and dialogue which must be honoured. However, while you think you're doing your best, you can be acting in ways far worse than you would ever imagine, especially if you deny the anguish that change can cause. At times like this you don't move with one heartbeat.

Shell has clearly been feeling that anguish. As a response to the storm of criticism about Brent Spar and the company's actions in Nigeria, Shell's management issued a revised operating charter which commits to human rights and sustainable development as an integral part of corporate development. I'm sick that it took the lives of Ken Saro-Wiwa and who knows how many more Ogoni to get Shell to concede that it must become more transparent in its operations. But it's a definite advance that the king of the secretive multinationals should be trying to define for itself the legitimate role of business in a world where it is no longer possible to claim, as Shell did in Nigeria, that it does not get involved in "local" issues. For too long, business has been teaching that politics and commerce are two different arenas. They are not. Political awareness and activism must be incorporated into global management. In a global world, there are no value-free or politically disentangled actions; the very act of organising on a global basis is political because of culture, geography and different value systems.

It Is inevitable that Shell will be accused of cloaking less-than-pristine practices in an unimpeachable value system. Along with other leading activist companies, The Body Shop has been similarly accused of inventing its values as a means of marketing its product. That is why ethical auditing is essential as a means to measure progress without the distortions of special-interest groups to guarantee that words are backed up by deeds. Apparently, Shell plans to invite NGOs to audit its activities. Absolutely - on this point there is no debate. Expressed values carry the message of shared purposes, standards and conceptions of what is worth living and striving for. They have immense motivating power for staff and customers. In short, if you screw around with the values, you screw around with your company's reason for being. Again, on this subject there is no debate.

With a general election in the offing, it is a cert that the values we'll be hearing most about are those attached to the family. I had friends to stay for the weekend and the fireside chat was mostly about family. I know I talk a lot about mine but I am always riveted to learn about other people's. Mothers especially. One guest has a mum who, at the age of 86, has moved in with her new paramour. The happy couple have sent out a mailer to friends and family explaining that they don't intend to marry (because they're likely to fall asleep during the service) but they will be living together from now on. That's the kind of affair that enters the annals of family legend. It helps explain why, when I was growing up, stories from the family were more magnificent than stories from the Bible. Or at least my mother did her utmost to guarantee that they were. She was - and is - a natural at subverting tradition. One Christmas she sabotaged the Queen's speech by playing at the same time her own message taped on a Grundig someone had given her. While my sister and I sat in mortified silence with our boyfriends, Mum outlined on tape her ideas of what we should be doing for the next year. That's the way it seemed to go for her. She would superimpose her rituals on ours and sabotage the penetration of popular culture into our lives. Quite a feat when I think of it, but I fought it. But as we shared mother stories on the weekend, certain characteristics emerged as mum markers.

Clippings, for instance. Mothers were always taking clippings from other people's gardens, whether those people liked it or not. And food. Mothers were always shoving food at their families. My mum collected it, because she thought we would all die of starvation otherwise. For her, how much you ate was much more important than how you ate it. Manners? Forget them. Perhaps that is why even today I can't bear people who slurp, burp and chomp at the table. I've lost two potentially good friends because of the noise they made when they ate. In fact, I think bad table manners are a horrifying assault on aesthetics. It wouldn't take a Freud to work out why.