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“Men on mountaintops, shouting through megaphones” is how KPMG’s Global Head of Tax Jane McCormick describes the old way of doing things. And it is usually men.
These words reverberate as I watch a Parliamentary Select Committee savage yet another senior executive. While compelling viewing, it seems to achieve little, except vent public frustration. Is that enough?
A barrister friend asks why Parliamentarians’ questioning – of people we need to be held to account – is so often unfocused, unconstructive and incapable of coming to relevant conclusions. They are not trained in methods of enquiry, nor are they technical experts, he points out. They are frequently playing to another gallery. Ironically, this is exactly the kind of soundbite-driven communications performance that lumps MPs and business leaders into the same untrusted, unbelievable category in the minds of the public.
It is now a year since I published Trust Me, PR is Dead, arguing that trust is an outcome, not a message, a behaviour not a promise. Our so-called “crisis of trust” will never be resolved if we continue to look at major issues first and foremost through a communications lens. It’s what you do, not what you say that counts. We need to change our behaviours before we communicate. Put simply, trust is not there to be spun.
In the past twelve months my view has become more steadfast. I now know that “more trust” is a meaningless term and that responsible leadership is as much about process as it is about character and values.
But what does “good process” look like? How can we avoid a return to crass 1990s managerialism?
Many well-intentioned leaders are sabotaged by a systemic onslaught that is predictable, self-serving and focused only on the short-term. Meanwhile, other leaders erect elaborate PR and CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) smokescreens to hide the fact they have no intention of doing the right thing. We see it in politics as well as in business: for example, in the education system, where policies are introduced on the whim of a Minister, often ceding to the immediate pressures of a Daily Mail headline, or in the housing debate where it is easy to set fanciful targets yet show little regard for the structural issues that impede reaching them.
At a recent business meeting, I listened to a number of the country’s great and good trot out tired Management Consultant-speak clichés about the “need for focus”, “less is more”, “structural and programmatic approaches” and, ultimately, “strategies that drive productivity”. What if, I ventured, these structures, which have demonstrably failed us, are redundant in the “new normal” – where power is dispersed, whistleblowers abound and where the message of Occupy “we are the 99%” rightly still lingers? What if greater productivity and the primacy of shareholder value is in fact the wrong aim?
My challenge was met with a combination of blank stares and mild rebuke. You are not meant to ask such questions: status quo remains the acceptable face of business. It is polite to be part of the silent conspiracy.
So to deliver change we have to show how old Business School structures continue to fail us. We have to demonstrate openness, empathy, vulnerability and the ability to say sorry when things go wrong. And we must learn from those with whom we agree least. All this is central to a new and better process.
This means convening groups to ensure genuine diversity of thought. It means actively encouraging dissent. In turn, this demands a process in which no participant seeks to control the other – nor assert hierarchy or score points. We have to admit that no-one has all the answers and stop pretending they do.
It is a difficult challenge but no-one said this would be easy. It depends on nuance and accepting that not all answers leads to a right or wrong, a black or white end-point. It may not be very convenient but some questions have no easy answers and no single solution. There are paradoxes everywhere – which makes the most important word in our lexicon ‘and’.
Tax is a prime example of this increasingly complex, less predictable and febrile world (and hence Jericho’s involvement with the Responsible Tax for the Common Good project) – where “what is legal” is not always what is deemed “morally right”. We must all make our own ethical judgments – as well as form a collective view. We must also recognise that the lack of supra-national consensus and a global governing body on tax will always lead to national competition and differing rates and regimes. Tax remains a sovereign issue.
The progressive answer to tougher, societal questions (and tax is only one among many) therefore requires embracing challenging conversations. Not, as some universities seem keen to do, to close down conversations altogether but to open them up – preferably framed by the wider search for common good. These conversations are provoked by bigger, more imaginative questions on purpose and meaning – and embrace a genuine diversity of thinkers properly equipped to answer them. Traditional, elitist structures too often see protagonists as part of the problem when they are of course part of the solution.
Three years into my journey on trust, this is as close as I think we have come to identifying a better process. Alongside helping ask bigger, better questions on tax, my colleagues and I are now working on humanising the modern city and the future world of work. We are building communities and coalitions from within and allowing the communities themselves to shape and share their journeys. The agenda is theirs, not ours. No-one is in control (a good thing) but that does not mean that progress is stunted. It is actually accelerated. The wisdom of the crowd always trumps the loneliness of the heroic CEO.
Responsible leadership and responsible business needs responsible questions – and a better, safer, more responsible process within which the right questions can be asked. I just wish our Parliamentary Committees would recognise it.
Robert Phillips is the co-founder of Jericho Chambers, a strategic advisor to KPMG on The Responsible Tax initiative, and the author of Trust Me, PR is Dead. He is a Visiting Professor at Cass Business School, London.