Forget Resilience, The Future of Business Is Accountability
For several years, the business press and business books have promoted the idea of resilience. The notion of a resilient enterprise or a resilient brand has been bandied about one of the goals of business management and leadership. Resilience is now beyond a buzzword: it is a critical and desired characteristic.
Resilience is important. The ability to recover fast has been especially important in the Covid-19 environment. Flexibility, learning on the go, elasticity are essentials for corporate and brand endurance. Toughness and grit are considered exceptional qualities for C-suite executives.
However, the political, social, institutional and environmental challenges of the past few years show that accountability is now more important than ever. Increasingly, people are expecting businesses, their leaders and their brands to be accountable. Not only do people expect businesses, leaders and brands to justify their actions, people will hold businesses, leaders and brands accountable for those actions. Customers do not go around asking about resilience; they do focus on accountability. To be customer-centric, accountability must be prioritized.
In the recent Deloitte Global 2021 Millennial and Gen Z Survey, the researchers point out that these two cohorts expect “institutions” to “drive change on the issues that matter to them the most.” The report concludes that it is going to be imperative that businesses “take actions and be accountable for activities that will help build a more equitable, sustainable world.” According to the Survey among 14,655 Millennials (b. 1983 – 1994) and 8,272 Gen Zs (b. 1995 – 2003), “… young adults are pushing for accountability … on issues including racism, the environment and wealth inequality.”
Brands are at their best and are most compelling when they align with the values, concerns and hopes of their customers and prospective customers. In our changing world, there is a growing and vocal audience expecting brands to stand up for what they stand for. And, young adults are savvy enough to know when a brand is talking appropriately but not acting appropriately.
For example, there is a difference between Tesla’s vision and that of General Motors. Tesla states:
We are designing and manufacturing a complete energy and transportation ecosystem that is fully vertically integrated. By doing so, we are creating affordable products that work together to amplify their impact, leading to the greatest environmental benefit possible. We seek to achieve this through our research and software development efforts as well as through our continued drive to develop advanced manufacturing capabilities.
General Motors recently announced that is wants to be “a growth-focused technology company.” General Motors wants to be the Apple of automotive. Where is the promise of a sustainable future? Where is the accountability?
Corporate America has tended to focus on making money for shareholders. This has spawned all sorts of financial finagling that at best lines executives’ and shareholders’ pockets at the expense of all other stakeholders and brands. At, its worst, a focus on making money for shareholders has an unpleasant relationship with the amorality of greed.
As former Unilever CEO, Paul Polman said in an interview with Financial Times, “The social responsibility of business ultimately is to ensure that we have a healthier planet. If businesses cannot show they’re making a positive impact on the world, why should we let these businesses stay around? You should put the interests of your children and your grandchildren ahead of your personal greed.”
We are now witnessing the beginning of an era of goodness. The Wall Street Journal pointed out in September 2021, that for a handful of branded organizations seeking IPOs, the underlying mission is not greed, but “do-gooding”. These branded enterprises are focusing on profitable operational and organizational global good as their goal. These branded enterprises recognize that their customers are their customers because of an inherent provenance of accountability on critical social and environmental issues. Patagonia has been a leader for decades. Patagonia has consistently managed with a belief that everything they do should have a positive impact – resulting in using less energy, not wasting water and creating less trash. Patagonia has added to its history of being an environmental leader to being a leader in social issues. Its website informs you that Patagonia is learning to become an anti-racist company. Readers can review Patagonia’s commitment.
Branded enterprises such as Allbirds have been built on the premise that sustainability and clothing are not oxymorons. Allbirds’ website not only points out that the fashion industry is one of biggest contributors to negative climate changes, but that it is time for people to hold these businesses accountable. Further, Allbirds promises to hold itself accountable for its impact. In the name of transparency, Allbirds lists its “Better Business” vision and offers its sustainability report to download.
The Wall Street Journal also highlights branded enterprises such as Chobani, Warby Parker and Rent The Runway as “do-gooders” focused on profitable operational, organizational global good. For all of these companies the underlying idea is that doing good is the pathway to enduring profitable growth. From the perspectives of these companies, there is value in values.
In his Financial Times interview, Mr. Polman tells us that new food businesses based on sustainability are value creators. For example, food companies such as Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Oatly are highly valued – all of the value creation is there. On the other hand, Mr. Polman notes, “The value creation for the big companies, even Unilever, has been fairly dismal.” Mr. Polman’s opinion is that businesses should “… aim to do more good rather than just aim to do less harm.” He thinks this should require businesses “… to focus on their stakeholders’ long-term interests and taking responsibility for their impact on the wider world.”
Of course, resilience is a nice-to-have factor, but resilience while wrecking the planet is woefully perilous. Resilience that is empty of moral accountability is bad for business and bad for brands.
Corporate mission statements that articulate generic thoughts will go nowhere. Mission statements such as “being the best fast food company” or “being the easiest to do business with“ or “generating happiness” or “being the Apple of automotive” pale in comparison to ideas such as Chobani’s, “‘transforming our food system for the betterment of our planet, our people and our communities, from cow comfort on dairy farms to responsible manufacturing practices.”
Many enterprises have used and may still use a RACI system to clarify management strategies and actions. With the RACI chart, managers list who is responsible for a plan or program; who is accountable; who is to be consulted; and who should be kept informed.
The future is not about separating responsibility, accountability, consultation and information. The future is a business that has in its soul the idea that the entire business must be responsible, accountable, consulted and informed. As the Deloitte Study showed, Millennials and Gen Zs are buying brands that connect with their personal values. ADWEEK supports this claim as well, stating that people are “increasingly citing purpose as a factor in buying behavior.”
To its credit, McDonald’s has committed to making its Happy Meal toys more sustainable by 2025. Reporting indicates that the fast food giant is shifting production of Happy Meal toys to plant-based materials. Each year, McDonald’s buys something like a billion toys for its Happy Meal children’s’ meals. This makes McDonald’s the largest toy company in the world. According to McDonald’s, this will “… be equivalent to more than 650,000 people eliminating plastics from their lives each year.”
This is a good step. But, at its heart, McDonald’s needs to have a vision of doing good that is closer to what Ray Kroc imagined when he said that doing good business was good for business.
A focus on accountability as part of a brand’s reason for being is increasingly necessary. Focusing on profitable operational, organizational global good means only making money if the business is doing good across all functions, strategies and tactics.
Accountability must be the first step. Resilience makes you flexible. Accountability makes you forceful. Resilience defines behavior now. Accountability defines the basis of the future.