St Paul’s, Bad Capitalism and the Principles of Sustainable Success

The story of the protest camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral has been dominated by the coverage of the Chapter’s management of the situation.  There are some signs now that attention is turning to the larger problem of what the protest means and of what should be done to rein in the excesses of what Ed Miliband has called ‘bad capitalism’.  Voices from both right and left are suggesting that not all is well with the way ‘the City’ operates. I want to suggest that both the Cathedral and the ‘bad capitalists’ might benefit from giving some consideration to the question of what makes organisations sustainably successful, viable, that is, over the long-term.  This is a big subject and as I want to keep these blogs relatively short I expect this one to leave plenty of questions.  Comments and responses would be even more welcome than usual.

The Cathedral has invited Ken Costa to lead the St Paul’s initiative, a project designed to address concerns about the way that City businesses are operating.  Mr Costa has spoken of “the pressing need to reconnect the financial with the ethical”.  It is hard to argue with this assessment.  I strongly suspect that current practices, over, for example, bonuses and executive pay, reflect a tendency for these organisations to operate in a world of their own, with only others like them as a frame of reference.  This normalises and reinforces practices that seem highly dubious to the rest of us – and probably, to those involved when they take a more objective look.  In fact, one of the striking features of the “Value and Values” report just published by the St Paul’s Institute is the picture it paints of widespread recognition in the City that things are not right.  This chimes with a conversation I had recently with a retired senior partner from one of the ‘magic circle’  commercial law firms, now a non-executive director on a number of boards.  He says that everyone agrees change is necessary to promote a more ethical and responsible approach but they all seem to be waiting for someone else to move first.

So I am all for more ethical business practice.  But there is also an appeal to enlightened self-interest that needs to be taken into account.  The work I do as a consultant with my colleagues at Telos Partners is driven by the desire to create sustainable success for ‘our clients, our business and ourselves’. Our convictions and practice have been informed by a body of thought and research on the subject of long term organisational success carried out over thirty to forty years.  This would include the work of Stafford Beer on sustainable organisational systems, of the RSA’s Tomorrow’s Company Inquiry, of Jim Collins in Built to Last and Good to Great and Charles Handy in several books – all reinforced and developed in the light of our eleven years of experience of working with leaders and organisations from across the sectors.  All these agree that the successful or viable organisation, amongst other things, recognises that it has a purpose that extends beyond maximising profit in the short-term.  It is this that ensures it retains the support and loyalty of those who work for it and with it – this far more than ‘extrinsic’ rewards like huge salaries.  It understands its success in terms that appeal not only to those that run or own the business but to all those who have a relationship with it.  In other words the business with an interest in being around for the long term recognises that it must offer something authentic and worth having both to those who own it and work for it and for the society in which it operates.  If it does not it risks, at the least, losing its ‘licence to operate’.

The viable organisation is also adept at understanding the challenges that exist in the world ‘out there’.  It does not live in a bubble of its own.  It makes every effort to understand what is happening in the world and how it needs to change in response to new conditions and ensure its continuing relevance.  This includes what is happening in ‘the market’ but it goes wider than that, to include changes in society, responding, for example, to shifts in public attitudes to high finance. It seems pretty clear that a number of financial institutions were not ‘scanning the horizon’ to great effect before the crash, and, from where I sit, they still seem slow to recognise that they cannot continue to operate as they did in the past.  The protestors at St Paul’s do not speak for everyone by any means but very many share their rejection of the excesses of capitalism and the conviction that it is not right to make the poor pay (through cuts and recession) for the errors and indulgences of the City – even if the reality is not as simple as that.

But it is not only City executives that live in a bubble.  The same thing can be said of many of us in this fragmented, compartmentalised world and the Church is as liable to it as anyone.  I do not know what went on behind the scenes at St Paul’s and I do not want to make assumptions but it certainly looks as if the Chapter was caught out by an event that did not fit into its normal frame of reference.  It seems a perfect illustration that life is what happens to us while we’re busy making other plans.  Anyone can be blind-sided by the unexpected, the genuinely unpredictable, but there are things the organisation set on sustainable success does to make it less likely to happen and easier to cope with when it does.  Firstly it deliberately and frequently opens its eyes to what is going on beyond its day-to-day world.  Secondly it nurtures and articulates its core purpose and values so that it is unlikely to confuse the core with those things it has got used to doing regularly (putting on the Lord Mayor’s Show, for example?).  Thirdly members of the leadership team spend time thrashing through what these values mean for them individually and as a group and develop a way of working together that prepares the team for dealing with the unexpected according to clearly identified common principles.  This is not the same thing as a media strategy, though that might be part of it: it is really about knowing what you stand for in a way that enables an appropriate and authentic response to new events.

None of this guarantees success but it certainly improves the odds of achieving an outcome that works for far more people and strengthens rather than damages our institutions.  St Paul’s may have done all these things, of course, and still got caught out – but if it has not, now would be a good time.

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