Why your company can be both responsible and successful

Social enterprises may exist expressly to change the world, but the idea that good works can lead to greater profits for any business is ultimately more powerful.

by Giles Gibbons
Last Updated: 22 Jan 2016

If a book persuades one more person to use their creativity, insight and entrepreneurial skills to change the world for the better, then we should shout from the rooftops about it - and Getting Beyond Better is littered with stories of good people doing just that.

It is well researched and clearly written, defining social entrepreneurism, how it works, and how we might do more of it. The authors know their stuff. Through their experience, they have been able to draw out some fascnating insights into what makes a social entrepreneur tick. However I did become frustrated while reading it.

The social sector (charity in its broadest sense) has been littered since the beginning of time with ballsy, creative, game-changing people who make a difference. Yes, some of these have nicked a few ideas from business; maybe (shock horror) they were even a bit entrepreneurial. So why do we need to write a book to define whether they are or aren't social entrepreneurs, and does it really matter what they are called?

Do we want more entrepreneurs game-changing every part of our world, commercial and social? Yes please. Is it surprising that some people do it for societal not just personal gain? No. (Surely this has happened for donkey's years.) The book spends too much time on this rather than showing how to be entrepreneurial for social change.

Getting Beyond Better codifies what others have done, is a well explained academic thesis of how it might work and will be a good addition to the literature in its field. But it certainly isn't a 'how to guide'. This is probably a good thing, as if you have the traits needed to turn the world upside down, you probably won't be settling into a couch with a hot chocolate and this book to work out how to do it.

That said, if you are sitting at your C-suite office wondering whether you want to spend the rest of your life making a genuine difference to the world outside of business, this book could be just what's needed to give you the motivation to do it.

Perhaps more relevant though, would be for you to pick up Lord Browne's new book Connect. The single most powerful way the majority of businesspeople can genuinely make a difference to the world is not by becoming a social entrepreneur but by making their business socially, and commercially more successful - 'a good business'.

John Browne, who was chief executive of BP between 1995 and 2007, uses his vast knowledge - and his little black book - to look back at the successes and failures of business and its relationship with society, and why it is increasingly important to get the engagement with the outside world right. He also provides a guide for business leaders to chart a new course that will help the business and the world around us. As a leader without much time on your hands, I would skip part one of the book (I think you should probably know the history already), and focus in on part two - how to do it better, which is excellent.

Browne's main tenet is that the success of a company depends on its relationship with the external world, not just customers and investors, but also employers, regulators, politicians, activists, NGOs etc. Get this right, and your business will thrive and so should the world around us. He provides clear and simple advice that is applicable to every business. It's packed with examples, although I do think the book could do with having some smaller business stories as well as larger ones - the advice is just as relevant to an SME as it is to a big firm.

My overriding sense reading Connect was what a shame it is that John Browne isn't still running a multinational in a sensitive industry and how few global businesses and their leaders still really understand how to engage properly with the world. I genuinely hope that this book will help a few more to open their eyes to the opportunity.

Both books though speak to a changing relationship between business and society, where business can learn from society (Connect) and society can certainly learn from business (at least the entrepreneurial bit). Maybe in so doing we will realise that there aren't two different silos but one, in which we all need to prosper and support each other.

Connect: How Companies Succeed by Engaging Radically with Society by John Browne is published by WH Allen at £20

Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works by Roger L Martin and Sally R Osberg is published by Harvard Business Review Press at £19.77

Giles Gibbons is the founder of strategic consultancy Good Business (goodbusiness.co.uk) and the chairman of Shift Venture Trust, the Paraorchestra, The Sustainable Restaurant Association and Excelerator

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