I led Britain’s response to the Ebola outbreak and this is what it taught me about business in a crisis

No business can fake being decent when times get tough. It either has the leadership and culture that cares – or it doesn’t

Justine Greening
Tuesday 24 March 2020 09:19
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London on lockdown: how businesses respond to the coronavirus crisis will seal their destiny
London on lockdown: how businesses respond to the coronavirus crisis will seal their destiny

As the UK goes into lockdown, it is now crystal clear that it will take a national effort to tackle coronavirus, with each one of us pulling in the same direction. And that national effort isn’t just about the public and our government, it’s wider than that. That’s a lesson I learned when, as international development secretary, I was responsible for tackling the Ebola outbreak.

The day to day reality for millions of us is that we are part of not one, but two communities – the one we live in, and the one we work in. So the national effort to tackle coronavirus is about business, and this crisis will shine a light like no other on the values of British business today.

It will reveal the companies that have the leadership and culture in place that not only enabled them to work out how to get through the coronavirus crisis – of course, that comes first – but then those that also turned their attention to how they could help more widely. Whether that’s supporting employees facing difficult family circumstances, finding ways to reach their most vulnerable customers, or acting to support communities more widely, those examples have been inspiring to us all. They have been demonstrated by bigger businesses, such as BP, TSB, Aberdeen Standard Life and DLA Piper, but also small and medium sized companies such as Sewell Group in Hull.

That’s why I got Britain’s business leaders together to set up the C-19 Business Pledge, to encourage companies to play that bigger role and share their ideas about what they are doing to help in the national effort on coronavirus.

There will, of course, be companies and leadership that fail to mirror the rest of Britain as it pulls together to tackle coronavirus. It will expose those companies who are not aligned with the values of their employees, their customers and the communities that they serve. It was disappointing, for example, to see easyJet decide to press ahead with a £174m dividend payout despite appealing to the government for taxpayer support to help it deal with the pandemic.

Boris Johnson announces nationwide lockdown to tackle coronavirus

I believe that British business can be a real force for good in our country. Coronavirus is showing many companies at their very best because it’s demonstrating how businesses as communities are mobilising themselves. Those doing it successfully are able to do so because they are inspiring their people with resilience, hard work, creativity, teamwork – the values that will get Britain through.

No business can fake being decent when times get tough. It either has the leadership and culture that cares or it doesn’t. In my work on the social mobility pledge, which asks businesses to act collectively to deliver equality of opportunity, I regularly see examples of that leadership in action and the effect it has on people. Like the first year law student I met who was juggling work and study with being the sole carer for her mother, supported and mentored by DLA Piper. When asked about what she felt was different about the company compared to some others, in her own words, she said: “They do give a s**t”.

I believe this national crisis will usher in a new era of true responsible business. Companies do care, or they don’t; it’s not an optional extra. They’ll be judged by their actions whether they want to be or not. As that happens, I believe coronavirus will set a higher bar for business. We can have all the laws we want from government, but companies must want to do the right thing in the first place. Today’s best businesses will want to be part of the solution to our national emergency. They’ll want to take Britain’s priorities and make them their own.

That, however, will require stronger leadership than many of our companies have at present – leadership that can set a clear culture and purpose, and then create an organisation that empowers the people who work in it to know and do the right thing, day in day out. They’ll be better places to work and attract the many people who share those values. They’ll thrive through more ideas from those employees. And, in being better, those companies will do better, because they’re where we’d all prefer to shop and spend our hard earned money with.

With each week that goes by in this fight against coronavirus we are seeing some dramatic changes in the way Britain operates. While we hope most of those extreme measures will be short term, the demand for responsible, ethical business will be here to stay. It’s right for 21st-century Britain and it’s the smart thing for companies too. Because ultimately, it’s the only type of business that’s sustainable.

Justine Greening was secretary of state for international development from September 2012 to July 2016

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