Lord Bob Kerslake is the chair of Peabody and the Centre for Public Scrutiny, as well as president-elect of the Local Government Association. He formerly headed the Civil Service and chaired London CIV.
Here, Lord Kerslake reflects on chairing a Think Tank roundtable and lays down a challenge to his peers.
My challenge to business leaders
“What is the role of business in creating a fairer future for all?” That’s the frighteningly broad question that a group of board members, academics, and governance experts explored at a Board Intelligence Think Tank roundtable that I recently chaired.
90 minutes certainly isn’t enough to crack such a problem, but it was sufficient to reach a few conclusions, and recognise three sad truths: That this issue is getting worse; that the world won't naturally get fairer if business does nothing about it; and that business isn’t currently doing enough.
“The world won't naturally get fairer if business does nothing about it.”
In most boardrooms, there is a will to make things better. But uncertainty about where to start stymies progress. And so, here’s the challenge I lay down to my peers: Start by bringing your discussions about fairness to life.
“Wait a minute,” you might retort, “ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) and EDI (Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion) are already discussed in depth at every meeting” — but that’s precisely the problem. Crucial as they may be, these are jargon-heavy, process-driven items, increasingly managed by specialists. And their complexity means that many — inside and outside the boardroom — feel illegitimate when the subject comes up and leave the floor to the experts.
Fairness, on the other hand, is relatable. Unlike ESG, we’ve all experienced (un)fairness throughout our lives, and we can all pitch into a conversation about it. And because no one’s feelings about what’s fair are more valid than anyone else’s, not only does fairness connect us all — decision makers, employees, customers, communities — it also opens the conversation up to us all.
So, what’s a leader to do? We came up with four recommendations:
- First, start the conversation — and the best way is to lead by example, by sharing your own experiences and asking others to do the same. Make it clear that fairness is on the agenda, and that everyone has permission — and legitimacy — to join the debate. And don’t make it a convoluted statement: simply saying “I’m committing to being a fairer leader and to building a fairer organisation than some of those I have experienced in my own life” could be a powerful starting point.
- Second, ask uncomfortable questions — about yourself and your organisation. “What do we mean by fairness?”; “How fair are we?”; and “Are we being fair to the community we operate in and the planet we live on, as well as our employees and customers?” Answers will vary, and that’s fine — but you need to have that emotional debate about fairness rather than retreat behind ESG statements.
- Third, find tangible, forward-looking measures of fairness. Beyond what’s in your ESG report, what fairness metrics can your organisation track? And are they fair just to what people are right now, or also to what they could be? For example, some KPIs might convince you that you’re treating your people or community fairly, but are you being fair to their true potential if you’re not giving them opportunities to achieve it?
- Finally, embed “fairness checks” in your decision-making. Harmless things can quickly turn into monsters when we don’t have the right conversations about them — look at social media poisoning democracy — so have a circuit breaker in place where you regularly ask, “Is this new initiative going to promote fairness or hinder it?”
No organisation can solve unfairness by itself. But the good news is that you have more power than you think — and you shouldn’t be afraid to use it when it matters. By driving the fairness agenda and bringing it to life in ways that empower everyone to join this conversation, you’ll not only be making your business a fairer organisation, but a better, more productive, and more sustainable one too.
What we learnt by adding a seat to the table
Every Board Intelligence Think Tank roundtable features an unexpected guest, invited to bring a different viewpoint to the conversation. On this occasion, we heard from Dr Alexanders Malchevskis, an economist and political refugee.
Dr Malchevskis brought in a more chilling perspective on fairness.
There’s a tendency amongst privileged individuals to only look at the inspirational side of things, and think, “Here’s what we could do if we improved the situation — wouldn’t it be nice?” But sometimes, we need a reality check to realise, “Here’s what will happen if we don’t improve the situation.” Dr Malchevskis reminded us that the risks associated with rising unfairness are real and can be nasty — and that we can’t simply turn a blind eye or hope they don’t affect us.
His take on money laundering resonated with me. I’ve been involved in boardroom conversations on the subject and, too often, the assumption in the UK is that it’s someone else’s problem — because, usually, the dirty money doesn’t originate from here. I’d like to see boards having real conversations about the risk that they might be handling laundered money — not just as a single agenda point in a busy meeting. If more companies took a zero-tolerance approach and refused deals that might involve laundered money, we could make a big difference both here and abroad.
Click here to read the full report on our roundtable findings.