Screw business as usual

by Richard Branson, published by Portfolio, December 2011

On meeting Richard Branson, Jochen Zeitz, the CEO of Sport & Lifestyle Group said: “I felt mesmerised by him at first, not sure whether I was being charmed by a beast with the nature of a lion or a golden retriever.” Mmm, I know what he means!

Branson’s book is a bright and breezy, easy read. It’s peppered with well-known names, inspirational stories and a Pollyannaish sense of optimism about everything, every problem, issue and event. Much of the time I felt like I was reading an advertorial for all things good about the Virgin Group and Branson.

But to simply characterise the book like that would be doing Branson, and the impetus and fundamental ideas that form the basis of the book, a disservice. Branson’s message is a simple one:  business as usual isn’t working, and things have to change.

He writes: “While the industrial age was all about wealth, unsustainable growth through depletion of natural resources and delivering profit to your shareholders, this new era, the ‘Age of People’ is all about shifting the focus to how businesses can and must deliver benefits to people and the planet – as well as shareholders.”

Fundamental to this book is a rallying call to business that ‘doing good is good for business’, which he has titled ‘Capitalism 24902’. Over and over again he states that business leaders must take on a wider responsibility for issues that affect every corner of the globe.

This book is full of inspiring stories, quotable quotes and nuggets of business advice for all businesses, for-profit and not-for-profit alike, and particularly social entrepreneurs. Throughout the book Branson uses anecdotes and examples of bringing together businesses, governments and social sector to create brand new business delivery models that take far better care of our communities. In doing so, he demonstrates the power and influence of philanthropists to build unconventional networks and coalitions to confront global social and environmental issues and achieve large-scale change for the better.

In one of the most telling chapters of the book Branson quotes Julie Hill, a former Division CEO of the infrastructure giant, Costain. She says that: “…the CEO of a business has to have their own personal epiphany about why business has to have a wider stakeholder base than just the direction of the business itself… they have to be citizens of the world and have to understand it, to have a broader mission and become more powerful, almost like government.”

But she stressed, that unless the CEOs themselves have this depth of world view of the humanist perspective, the company won’t really to do anything. They may tick the boxes, but that’s all.

This book is a compendium to, and another expression, of Michael Bishop and Michael Greene’s book Philanthrocapitalism and Michael Porter and Mark Kramer’s writings on ‘creating shared value’.  For most people and companies, much of this sentiment is still aspirational.

However some CEOs are taking the lead. Last year Paul Polman, the head of Unilever, launched an ambitious plan to double Unilever’s revenue by 2020 while halving the company’s environmental impact. A July 2012 edition of AFR Boss featured an interview with Paul Polman. They discussed with Polman the challenges of leading a socially driven mission while protecting his company’s core.   Polman is quoted as saying: “Our form of capitalism has brought us far, but hasn’t solved everything. We think businesses that make contributing to society a part of their business model will be successful.”

Music to Branson’s ears – and to mine!

Comments are closed.