Every modern business needs a set of 'critical friends'

This week’s guest blog is from Responsible 100’s CEO and Founder Michael Solomon.

Every month for the past 3 years, the Responsible 100 network has quietly but effectively brought together  micro businesses, SMEs and some of the world’s largest corporations with leading campaign groups, NGOs, trade bodies, government and regulators. These “critical friend” sessions are really changing the way that business operates one meeting at a time.

In a complicated world of expectations and opinions for business to deliver on their economic, social and environmental impact how do you make sure that you are fit for purpose? This week’s guest blog is from Responsible 100’s CEO and Founder Michael Solomon.

Michael Solomon

Real responsibility will drive profitability

“Businesses need to balance their necessary pursuit of profit with the long term interests of people and planet. Doing this, while remaining competitive, is extremely challenging.

In recent decades, a multitude of efforts have been made to help business better achieve this balance with little substantive success.

For the majority of businesses, the overwhelming focus is on delivering products and services, at the right price and quality. All too often, 'doing good' happens incidentally or marginally, if at all.

At Responsible 100’s heart is an exciting and bold hypothesis: real responsibility will drive profitability, while irresponsible practices will increasingly diminish it.

A Collaborative Network Of Businesses, NGOs And People

The Responsible 100 is a business tool which helps any business to benchmark its performance on a wide range of responsibility issues such as tax, community impact, zero hour contracts, executive pay, modern day slavery, workplace diversity, animal testing, customer complaints and redress, and many more besides. In fact we have 47 areas of business performance to be tested. If an issue affects business and wider society, we explore it!

How Does It Work?

Every month for the past three years Responsible 100 we have come together roughly once per month to explore a given topic in roundtable meetings of up to 30 people. For example, in November 2016 we explored reporting cycles and cyber security in separate roundtable meetings. Our aim is to unpick the issue and truly understand it. We seek to determine how it affects businesses and their stakeholders, how things have recently changed and what the future may hold. Secondarily, we build a consensus as to what POOR, OKAY, GOOD and EXCELLENT standards of business policy and practice look like.

Our discussions focus around the question we have that sets out the minimum disclosures businesses should make on the issue, and the scorecard which seeks to define and describe these four basic performance standards. We have run 34 roundtable meetings to date. We plan to run up to 20 next year.

Businesses that participate in these meetings for the first time may come simply to observe proceedings. A second invitation to attend may depend on taking the bold step of drafting an answer to the question under examination. It can feel uncomfortable to expose your practices on challenging issues for the first time, especially when you don’t think your business performs particularly well on the issue. However, the rewards can be enormous.

A Unique Environment

There is no other environment that we know of where a business can set out its stall, out of the media spotlight, in the safe, supportive, collegiate space that we foster, with such a range of actors, on such a breadth of important issues. Participants may speak freely given their contributions are protected by a modified version of the Chatham House rule. Exchanges are frank. People are able to share their knowledge, experience and insights, and in return benefit from hearing those of others.

We include micro businesses, SMEs and some of the world’s largest corporations. Participants represent leading campaign groups, NGOs, trade bodies, government and regulators. Our previous tax roundtables, for example, have included the CBI, the OECD, Oxfam, ActionAid, Christian Aid and Tax Justice Network, the majority of which are expected at our next tax roundtable which will be held on 18 January 2017.  

When a business shares its answer to a question with such a breadth of people, it opens itself up for deep scrutiny. These ‘critical friends’ – peer businesses and civil society organisations alike – offer their suggestions, their praise and, where needed, their criticisms. However, gentle probing from others around the table leads to further exploration and insight. Seeing problems and challenges through the eyes of others builds empathy and deeper understanding of the issue. It also frequently spawns innovation. Businesses and campaigners alike leave with ideas for new solutions and new approaches that they would not have conceived alone.

Businesses Held To Account

In short, businesses are held to account. We require them to explain and justify what they do, but we also support them along their journey. Being OKAY, according the scorecard is, well, okay. In working in these ways we form a clearer sense of what GOOD and EXCELLENT look like, and thus if, how and when businesses might perform to these standards if they are not there already.  

Responsible 100 provides a unique tool and process with huge potential to help create a better type of business. Its development would not have been possible without the amazing support and trail-blazing of founding businesses such as Pukka Herbs, KYOCERA Document Solutions (UK), Neal's Yard Remedies and Legal & General.

Where Next?

We are excited about the future. In 2017, we will make the mapping and benchmarking of responsibility performance increasingly simple and rewarding to undertake. Ultimately, for real responsibility to drive profitability, consumers, employees and people with pensions or other company investments must be empowered to identify and reward the businesses which are open, honest and accountable.

Sign up your business for a Critical Friend Review in 2017 or why not even suggest a topic that needs testing with some of the biggest companies in the world. Contact us for further information.