Chartered Management Institute: In My Opinion

Chartered Management Institute Companion Rita Clifton discusses the importance of values and ethics in business - and their effect on people.

Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

One can occasionally get depressed about people's general attitude to business. Here are a couple of examples. My old Cambridge college was drumming up alumnae donations recently, by asking some current students to phone Old Girls. During her (rather sweetly amateurish) sales patter, I asked the girl who was canvassing me what she would like to do on graduation. She said: 'Well, ideally, I'd like to do something good, like work for a charity or the Government or something, but I may have to end up working in marketing.' I tried not to take this as a personal insult, but the 'business equals bad/not good' syndrome gets in the way of all of us.

Another example is when media interviewers talk about 'Business' and 'Business people' with capital Bs as though they are some kind of third-party phenomena that have nothing to do with polite society. When you point out that most people in this country are actually 'in business', or certainly paid for by businesses, it rarely seems to connect.

I say all this because it is obviously in the interest of all of us for people to feel that business is critical to everyone - in fact, to feel that it is A Good Thing. We all need licence to operate to create sustainable wealth and the social, political and personal benefits that it brings.

There are a number of ways in which we can improve perceptions of business. First, it would help if we had more (and more warmly human) people representing businesses on television. We may all laugh indulgently at The Apprentice and Dragons' Den as entertainment, but, for our children, this shapes their views, with little counterbalance. And isn't it interesting how villains in films and programmes tend to be corporate suits?

All too often, business leaders are invited to appear on TV to defend a position or answer an accusation - and they come across as a stiff corporate voice rather than a concerned real person. I've been told many times by both journalists and trade bodies that they find it difficult to get good spokespeople to champion business and its fundamental benefits - not only because of time commitments, but also because they fear being hijacked on a difficult subject or not performing well. If so, we deserve what we get.

Or do we? Obviously, one of the key ways of improving perceptions of business is through living up to - and indeed delivering - positive values and ethics. Easy and obvious to say, and I know that many business leaders complain that the media is not interested in covering positive stories. 'A good business is producing great products and services, supporting their people and communities, and making a fair profit' is not a very compelling headline.

However, it is also true that most businesses have some way to go in identifying and living up to distinct values - the kind of brand values, in fact, that make their own people really care about what they do and become advocates for the companies that employ them.

Recent research by Interbrand found that less than half (47%) of the working population felt proud to work for their employer; the larger the company, ironically, the less proud they felt. When asked what would make them feel proud of their company, two-thirds said: 'Having a positive impact on people's lives'. Almost as many (61%) said: 'Set high standards for quality of work', 'look after their customers', and that they 'treat their people respectfully' (60%). Rather fewer felt that the more traditional CSR attributes of 'being praised for their ethical standards' and 'they give back to the community' would make them feel proud. Still fewer (44%) said they were proud when their firms 'consistently produce great financial results'. And yet what do company leaders talk most about?

In the end, in an all-seeing digital world where the ghosts of corporate misdemeanours never get laid to rest, there is simply no substitute for developing strong values and ethics, and living up to them. Not just at the level of avoiding risk, but of taking a leadership role in setting the agenda in markets - across product, service and creative quality, of course, but increasingly in the area of values and real contribution to people's quality of life. From almost 5,000 brand valuation exercises conducted around the world on businesses of all kinds, we can demonstrate that leadership is the characteristic most correlated with long-term value creation.

As far as a company's own people are concerned, charity begins at home in how they are treated and inspired. It's through them that you get the customer service/profit chain in motion. Unless you get your own people involved, engaged and inspired by what you do, claiming values and ethics will be worth nothing, because they won't be manifest to your customers, just smothered by cynicism.

This is the role of a strong company brand. As far as values and ethics are concerned, I would say to any business that wishes to build sustainable wealth in the future, use good brand thinking as an organising principle for everything you do ... and just do it.

CV: RITA CLIFTON is chairman of Interbrand in London, a leading brand consultancy. She is also non-executive director of two FTSE companies, and is chairman of Populus, opinion pollster to The Times. She has been a member of the Government's Sustainable Development Commission and is a trustee of WWF. Her writing has included the Economist book Brands & Branding (2003).

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