We can't let success become a dirty word

OPINION: Those who've done well out of business need to make the positive case for its contribution to society, says media advisor Jordan Greenaway.

by Jordan Greenaway
Last Updated: 31 May 2019

The publication of The Sunday Times Rich List a few weeks ago was greeted with a familiar outcry. It's unfair. Capitalism is broken. How can so few people have so much wealth while others have so little? Cue Jeremy Corbyn: it was a "stark reminder of the grotesque inequality that scars our society".

I actually think the Rich List does an admirable job at making the positive case for entrepreneurship. It tells the stories of people who have overcome adversity, taken risks, and developed innovative solutions to difficult problems, building successful businesses that create jobs and generate tax – something that this country plainly needs more of right now.

The intense criticism of the Rich List goes beyond a view that the most economically successful ought to share a portion of their gains to pay for public services and to fight deprivation - a belief around which there is near universal consensus. Rather, it taps into a compelling narrative that is growing in this reactionary age: that successful people can only have acquired their wealth through illegitimate or parasitical means, and therefore do not deserve it at all.

This worldview is hardly new and it’s certainly not going away. In fact, it may well get considerably worse over the next five years or so, especially when we have an education system that singularly fails to teach young people how our economy works and how taxes are generated.

Yet successful entrepreneurs, company owners and sometimes family offices don’t make it any easier for themselves, because they don’t do enough to showcase the positive contribution they make to society, which can be profound [full disclosure: I advise business owners on their media profile]. Indeed, according to the economist William Nordhaus, entrepreneurs generally only capture 2 per cent of the total contribution they make by bringing new ideas to market.

It’s perhaps disappointing, but people will not recognise the wider social value of business unless you show them – something that large corporations have understood for a long time.

These firms are at pains to articulate the scale of the taxes they have paid, the number of jobs they’ve created and the contributions they have made to the local community, charities and the environment. Many will have fully fledged CSR departments to estimate and communicate this impact. It plays a massive role in educating the public about the good that these companies do.

It also enables companies to fight back against vacuous, damaging and malicious claims. If a business has the data at hand to show how much they have contributed to the economy this year, critics can't just get away with saying they are enriching themselves off the backs of the poor. The more hard data and evidence that is out there, the more difficult they are to smear.  

It’s striking that many of the individuals behind these companies – entrepreneurs, family owners, executives, investors and family offices – do not do the same. Most will shudder at the idea of giving themselves any visibility at all – nor do many owners want, understandably, to overshadow their companies or investments.

The result, however, is that the public so easily imagines them as amoral financiers moving money around in gilded towers as their workers toil, rather than hardworking business people who often spend their weekends working on spreadsheets and answering emails.

Successful people do not need to engage in self-promotion; in fact, self-promotion does more harm than good in almost all cases, certainly in the long term. They do, however, need to take steps to make information available about their positive impact. Otherwise the harmful narrative that success is somehow a dirty word will only grow stronger, to the detriment of our economic health. 

Jordan Greenaway is managing director of Transmission Private

Image credit: Kat Jayne/Pexels

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