Lessons from #Progress2017: Progressive Voice for Business

On Day Two at Progress 2017, the morning session on Building a Progressive Voice for Business covered off diversity, trust, campaigning and owning the debate, and the “full freight” of doing business. This knowledgeable line up included the voices of Tom Quinn from the Future Business Council, Sam Mostyn – President of the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), Sam Wong from Blackbird Ventures and widely publicised retail goal kicker, Peta Granger from Lush Australia. The discussion was moderated by Nassim Khadem.

 

On Diversity

You can’t get far on the topic of a ‘how business can make a broader social impact’ and not touch on diversity. The view of the panel was this: businesses signing up for diversity policies were only just purchasing their ticket for entry to be regarded as progressive by their investors, shareholders, customers and staff. And there was discussion on quotas.

Progress on women in the workplace was a topic that Sam Mostyn could take an authoritative stance on – given her role as Deputy Chair of the Diversity Council of Australia. She pointed out that the Australian Institute of Company Directors (AICD) has set a 30 per cent target for boards and that it was her view that good business couldn’t really be a good business if it wasn’t utilising the talent of women.

At a macroeconomic level, Mostyn said the impact of women not being in enriched and well paid roles throughout their lives has tragic results if they don’t have a broader family infrastructure to support them in their final years. The result can be poverty and homelessness.

In the world of technology start-ups, Samantha Wong from Blackbird Ventures has seen across the portfolio her company manages that women create extraordinary value. More women = more profit and more value, was her view, and that pushing for quotas might not be as effective as asking investors to demand the reporting on the number of women in technical roles of leadership – not just fudging the numbers on administrative roles or traditional roles.

Quotas on women wasn’t a concern to Lush – with 80 per cent of their workforce being women. However, Director Peta Granger pointed out that they take it further and from a campaigning perspective because their staff expect it of them. They don’t use models in their marketing, there is no Photoshopping of images and they don’t pay for advertising.

The argument for more women in business was very rationally put forward by the Future Business Council, who framed this in terms of talent. The rationale was that talent is equally distributed across the population, so if a business didn’t have women in its leadership teams and on its Board, it was probably operating below standard.

Is it working anywhere? The answer is ‘yes’. Sam Mostyn said Mirvac is a shining example: “It does feel different on that Board, there’s no imbalance,” she said.

Some additional takes on women in business:

  • Under 40 year olds are simply bewildered if there isn’t gender diversity – and are deterred.
  • Some new recruitment practices coming into play are ‘name blind applications’ – which reduces the tendency of bias on both gender and ethnicity.
  • An additional layer of thinking currently underway from the Diversity Council Australia is The Bamboo Ceiling.

 

The Penalty Rates Debate was about Fair Trade…in Australia

Peta Granger’s led the charge on this topic given much-talked-about stand on penalty rates in the face of the Fair Work Commission’s decision to cut Sunday and public holiday penalty rates for people working in retail and hospitality. She framed the decision of Lush refusing to cut their staff’s penalty rates as being in line with their Fair Trade policy. “It’s not something that only happens elsewhere,” Granger told the audience at Progress 2017. “Why would we ask our staff to put in the same amount of work for less money?”

Granger recollected a time when Lush was losing money and that the staff had been instrumental in turning the success of the business around. They hadn’t written a media release or made a statement publicly about their decision, they simply placed it on their staff Facebook page – then staff shared it. And the media called. And the public response was overwhelming. The social media impact and commentary was one thing, but the footfall in their stores increased by 65 per cent.

Granger also pointed out that much of the customer experience in Lush stores relies on the vibrant attitude and helpfulness of their staff – which would have dwindled if penalty rates had been cut. It would have been a poor ethical and commercial decision for the business.

Some additional takes owning the debate:

Mostyn specifically stated that corporate leaders often speak with a more progressive voice individually than their respective industry associations and lobby groups. She said that truly visionary and distinctive leaders don’t revert to the lowest common denominator often hiding behind an industry body – they take a stand for their brand’s worldview and purpose.

 

On Trust

The Edelman Barometer really speaks for itself. Although media and government topped the charts for loss of trust this year – business was still not faring well, Mostyn pointed out and there are some shining examples of some corporates stepping in to bridge the gap of responsibility abdicated by Government.

In the United States, the latest example was Michael Bloomberg’s leadership and investment in the face of President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the commitment of the Paris Agreement – and the response with the We Are Still In campaign. A more local example is the role of businesses on the issue of Reconciliation and launching RAPs.

 

On Businesses Campaigning

This was really Granger’s space. She pointed to the benefits of purposeful leadership at Lush as just part of their DNA – considering they were founded on a platform of animal welfare activism. Lush has, in its time, campaigned strongly on puppy farms and incarceration of animals, and then in the last federal election in Australia, the company teamed up with GetUp to take a stand for the Great Barrier Reef with ‘how to vote’ cards handed out to customers.

That’s not the only instance of a strong stand on a political issue – there was also the campaign on asylum seekers, where the message progressed gradually. In fact, the earliest iterations were examples of bad behavior presented in another session by Anat Shenker-Osorio. But they learned. The gamechanger for Lush was not talking through a lens of pity or negativity but presenting the message of reuniting families and telling the story of former asylum seekers now living fulfilled and happy lives. Customers responded. Sales grew by 49 per cent.

Some additional takes businesses campaigning:

  • If you have a posterchild for a particular issue, always represent them ethically. Consider lived experience on every creative and distribution decision and have 1:1 conversations whenever possible.
  • Lush’s Peta Granger said that the louder they are, the more values driven customers and staff they will attract – and if they get it wrong, their friends tell them so, and they fix it – but those people become the business’ ultimate champions.

 

On Disruption and the Big Issues: Cities, the Workplace, Climate Change

Sam Mostyn urged business to look to the big picture – to consider the challenges ahead, the macro lens of what needs to change, and solve for those problems. This is where the nimble start-ups are outperforming the larger companies – they can be quick about it.

She also pointed out that the more traditional professions – like law – may think they’re immune to disruption, but they’re not. She also agreed with a member of the audience that navigating partnership structures in firms is very challenging, but all professional businesses should consider their clients.

The other disruptor, it was noted, may not come from outside traditional workplaces – it might come from within. More junior members of staff should kick off conversations about customer and staff perception, encourage engagement surveys and go to leadership with an action plan if they want to affect change.

All panelists agreed that businesses needed to start talking and leading on issues like:

  • What does the future of work look like?
  • There is already an eruption of action in the face of government inaction on climate change in the United States. BlackRock has come forward saying “coal is dead” and the Future Business Council and the Centre for Policy Development commissioneda legal opinion to put to Directors of Australian companies on the fiduciary duty to consider climate-related risks to their business.
  • Where is business on the issue of affordable housing?
  • Can business rally to demand better policymaking?
  • What do we do when the employment market contracts as a result of increasing automation, AI and VR – how do we share the wealth of society when this happens?
  • How can businesses consider the role of cities and where they can contribute? Placemaking has a direct relationship to mobility, inclusivity, education, health, and tackling domestic violence and leave issues.
  • Lush is putting two per cent of all profits into a SLUSH fund (not what you think – the S is for ‘sustainability’ – for investment in sustainable and regenerative farming.
  • For Good2Give’s clients and charities, it’s an opportunity to consider what the future of giving at work looks like.

 

This very robust discussion completed with some poignant statements made by Sam Mostyn, who said she had a very simple way of thinking about businesses behaving with purpose and that was that they should “pay full freight”. She said that if businesses aren’t covering the costs of their operations and the business impact, someone else has to pay and businesses need to shoulder that responsibility and pay their way.

She left us with this thought on climate change: “we tax employment but not pollution”.

Good2Give’s Head of Marketing Communications, Lyndal Stuart, attended Progress 2017  the Centre for Australian Progress’ biennial event for Australia’s leading campaigners, advocates and change-makers from every sector. Lyndal tweeted from the event @Good2GiveNGO #Progress2017.