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A nation with purpose – business is the platform

 

 

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The headline “A nation with purpose” is loaded with possibilities. I don’t think I have ever seen it before. We talk about Vision and Values but … Purpose? (why do we exist?)  Answering the question about Why is a big issue.

In January 2015, I wrote about the absence of thought leadership in Australia, and I have continued to write about the need for it in the context of the Innovation debate in Australia. Why does Australia need to be innovative and in what areas?

Innovation on its own is like a cork floating in the ocean.  It will continue to float forever, or it might find a home.  Based on the need for thought leadership, I have been searching  for ‘thought leaders” on the future of Australian business. My Facebook page, Strategies for a Nation records this quest.  There is little rigour in my project.  Each day I scan the papers, social media and business publications for anything which, in my view, provides a sense of direction about the future of Australia and Australian business.  There are references and a few industry papers, but mostly, the talk is about problems. There are some exceptions, and I have mentioned a few in my Blog on Moonshots for Australia.

Based on the media, what has occupied the mind of our leaders – political and business?

  • The budget crises or emergency – debt and deficit
  • Stop the boats
  • No new big taxes – climate change
  • Tax reform
  • Royal Commissions – child abuse and unions
  • The marriage equality debate
  • The polls and who sits in which chair

While there is little doubt these issues are important, not one of them creates a sense of direction or, to use Paul Keating’s terms, “nourishes the soul” of a nation.

Imagine my surprise when a business leader presented a view on Australia as a nation with purpose.  Jennifer Westacott in the Australian 24-25 September 2016 says:

Let me start by saying that, right now; I think we are at risk of losing our collective sense of direction and purpose.  And I think the community senses we are in danger of drifting.

We have had five prime ministers in the past eight years. This is disruptive and costly, and has stalled reform and confused our purpose.

“We are in danger of drifting?”

We are not at risk of drifting.   We are drifting.   We are floating in a malaise of problems, negativity, political point scoring and media “gotcha” games. We are dominated by narrow-minded, and in some cases,  monomaniacal interest groups who want to control the debate for their agendas.

We have reached a stage where we are unable to have a debate about national reconciliation because it is ‘too divisive.’  It appears it is the same for marriage equality.  What an extraordinary set of circumstances! What if , as a nation, we discussed PURPOSE!

A 21st century Australia which is well educated, multi-cultural by choice and proud of its diversity is unable to have a debate because it is ‘too divisive.’

It is beyond belief – and a national tragedy!

I have taken Westacott’s comments on a “nation with purpose” and framed them a little differently while trying to retain the integrity of the message.

A Nation with Purpose would not; A Nation with Purpose would:
Continually put off the big work needed to put the budget in order.
Run the risk of giving future generations, crippling rates of taxation because hard decisions can’t be made now.

 

Leave the safety net vulnerable to external forces, some of which we can’t predict.

 

Begin the careful, methodical redesign of our major programs of expenditure. This would ensure they are meeting people’s needs, that they are efficient and that we can pay for them in future.

 

Leave the confusion, duplication and buck-passing of the federation unchecked.

 

Deliver for the citizens of Australia in areas such as health and education. Give incentives that will drive better service delivery. Find who is best placed to take responsibility.

Give incentives that will drive better service delivery. Find who is best placed to take responsibility.

Find who is best placed to take responsibility.

 

Leave our competitiveness failing, stalling or declining.

 

Despair our stagnating multi-factor productivity, which we know is at the heart of living standards and higher wages. Encourage business investment through pursuing lower taxes, better regulation and lower costs.

Make our workplaces more flexible and more creative. Not to destroy the safety net but protect it — by protecting people’s capacity to have jobs into the future.

 

Neglect the potential of its areas of comparative advantage.

 

Drive our comparative advantages so as to clear the way, with purpose and intent, to maximise our strengths.

 

Idly watch South Korea, Britain, Germany, New Zealand (and much of the developed world), drive through deliberate, purposeful policy, the areas where they know they can succeed on a global scale.

 

Try to prop up unsustainable companies and jobs.

 

Develop and protect the skills and capabilities of its people and make serious investments in them.

 

Allow our vocational education and training system to fall into disrepair.

 

Put VET front and centre of the national agenda, not as an afterthought.

See it as a critical tool to manage the transition underway in our economy.

 

Continue to pursue teaching methods and an approach to education, which is actually producing worse results.

 

Focus on teacher quality, science, maths and new ways of teaching through inquiry-based learning, not just academic learning.

 

Send multiple mixed and confusing signals on foreign investment.

 

Understand the strategic purpose of investment. Would set rules that were consistent and transparent

Many people call for the government to produce a plan and perhaps they should.  But maybe the starting point is to have purpose.  To have intent. To act with determination.

It is the start of what I hope will be a more positive conversation, particularly in the business arena. Leadership is a critical element in all this, and our current political system is crippled with self-interest and preoccupied with important but energy sapping issues. There is no sign it will change.

Maybe business is crippled by the same self-interest and a culture dominated by:

  • Shareholder value
  • Rewarding senior executives with “market value “ rewards
  • Productivity
  • Tax Reform
  • Corporate Governance.

All of these are important but not one of them “nourishes the soul” of business.

Willis Harmon wrote many years ago, and it seems relevant to this conversation

 Business has become, in this last half century, the most powerful institution on the planet. The dominant institution in any society needs to take responsibility for the whole — as the Church did in the days of the Holy Roman Empire. But business has not had such a tradition.

This is a new role, not yet well understood or accepted.

Built into the concept of capitalism and free enterprise from the beginning was the assumption that the actions of many units of individual enterprise, responding to market forces and guided by the ‘invisible hand’ of Adam Smith, would somehow add up to desirable outcomes. But in the last decade of the twentieth century, it has become clear that the ‘invisible hand’ is faltering. It depended upon a consensus of overarching meanings and values that are no longer present. So business has to adopt a tradition it has never had throughout the entire history of capitalism: to share responsibility for the whole.  Every decision that is made, every action that is taken, must be viewed in the light of that kind of responsibility.

Dr. Willis Harman, Emeritus Professor Stanford UniversityWorld Business Academy Co-founder, and Fellow

This not so new responsibility, I suspect, does not sit well in the business lexicon, as shareholder value has captured the pockets and the egos of this dominant institution.  But a purposeful country would have as a major part of its conversation, a series of issues focusing on some projects that nurture the spirit of the nation.

Jennnifer Westacott has taken a position in the absence of many. She has presented it in a way that challenges business to look at the why? She says:

I’m not convinced enough our organisations have got a genuine focus on purpose.

I’m not sure they constantly ask the question — why?

Yes, many have well-crafted mission statements. But that is not the same as a true understanding of the “why” — a clarity of direction that is shared across the organisation.

There are a few things we can do to help clarify that purpose. First, context is still king.

To answer this question WHY with integrity is difficult. The answer is not shareholder value although many take a soft option and argue that it is. It is a safe and measurable option.  Shareholder value is the dominant mantra in the minds of the business world today.

By challenging business leaders to answer the question Why, Westacott is opening a great existential question. I have written many times in these blogs about the essence of strategy. Who are we? And why do we exist? Are at the heart of a real strategy process, and they are too glibly passed over. The reason is, most have NOT answered these questions at a personal level. It takes courage.

If enough business leaders find the courage to ask this question in their business and struggle with the question, with integrity, we might have a very different business culture.

Business Leadership is really about helping the business to address these questions so that employees, suppliers, shareholders, CUSTOMERS and the community, all experience the benefits regarding prosperity.  It is my view that our current business culture is too focussed on short term shareholder value issues.  It’s called greed!

There is  a story about the three virtues Faith Hope and Love.

As I heard the story, the early fathers of the church had always considered that Love was the greatest of all virtues, but a great thinker in the early church (it might have been St Augustine) said:

Of the three great virtues Faith Hope and Love, many consider Love to be the greatest virtue.  It is not!  Hope is the greatest of all virtues. He explained:

  • Faith tells you that there is a God
  • Love tells you that God is good; but
  • Hope is the greatest of all virtues because hope tells you that there is a future!

And the daughters of Hope are anger and courage.

Anger – so that what must not be, will not be; and

Courage –  so that what must be will be.

May there will come a time in Australia when business leaders have the courage to answer the question WHY?

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Ben Kehoe