Is the only social responsibility of business to maximise profit? Our future leaders don’t think so. The debate over how to balance profit and purpose has consumed the thoughts of business leaders and ivory-towered economists for decades, if not centuries. But it is not an academic debate: it affects all of us, especially younger generations who are the future stewards of our businesses, society, and planet.
In partnership with the Aleto Foundation, a charity focused on providing significant lifetime opportunities for young people with high potential, we ran a roundtable to hear what young leaders had to say about the role of business in society.
Alongside 14 future leaders, guest chairs Rebecca Lowe and Louisa Harris joined us to guide the discussion around the role of business in creating a fairer future. Rebecca brought insight from her role as Research Director for BGF, an SME investment firm, and Louisa from her role as Head of Sustainability and Systems Change at Brandpie, a purpose-driven brand agency.
Empathy and Leadership
Tasked with the question at the heart of our Think Tank’s 2021 inquiry, “What can businesses do to help create a fairer future?” our future leaders were clear in their conviction that fairness begins on the home front. If you can’t sustain a fair and supportive employee environment, then you don’t have much chance at sustaining a profitable venture.
As graduate employees, our future leaders want to see senior leaders overcoming the disconnect created by vertical hierarchies to develop empathetic and inclusive environments.
Why not try, our leaders suggested, introducing “listening days” where the C-Suite sit down in one-to-one conversations with junior employees?
Company and public policy, too, can make workplaces fairer. Ideas we heard included avoiding burnout and toxic cultures by mandating more leave and greater flexibility around bereavement and mental health, and holding teams that have low employee engagement scores to account by enforcing hiring freezes until the score rises.
A Code of Humanity
But, our future leaders were clear, policies and regulations can’t fix the fundamental need for a greater human connection and empathy between senior leaders and their employees. As one young leader expressed it: we have a moral obligation to one another as fellow human beings, that goes beyond any regulatory obligation. We’ll be looking further into ideas for how to tackle the insulation of senior leadership from their wider organisations and communities, as a dedicated workstream following our fairer future inquiry.
What our future leaders felt we needed could be seen as some sort of Code of Humanity. Through discussion, we realised this was also the area where our young leaders have the most to offer. When we asked what they could personally do to create a fairer future, the focus came down to community and allyship: speaking up about injustices and inequalities you notice around you; pointing out when a colleague isn’t being given a fair chance to speak in meetings; bringing your authentic self to work with you. These are areas where anyone can make a difference, regardless of their role or seniority.
The challenge from our future leaders is that every organisation needs to “humanise jobs”, as one put it. This new generation of workforce is highly aware of how much of their lives they are going to spend working - and with the benefit of foresight, are determined to spend this time responsibly, empathetically, and with humanity.
Click here to read the full report on our inquiry findings.