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12 ways to humanise your business – and why you must

Twenty years ago it would have been incomprehensible that so many businesses with minimal tangible assets would dwarf asset rich corporations. And yet today, Airbnb, a platform with minimal owned property on its books is worth $31 billion and the world’s most valuable hotel group, Hilton, with its portfolio of 6,000 hotels is valued at $13.3 billion. Uber is worth an estimated $120 billion, whilst the US’s largest taxi company was valued at just $120 million at its zenith and then closed permanently last year.

Clearly what this, and all the hard evidence, shows is that intangible assets are growing in importance. In the case of disrupter platform businesses this tends to be data driven. Why for instance is Netflix able to churn out hit series after hit series? Because it knows exactly what its audience is watching and their preferences for genres, themes and actors. This understanding is also a fundamental part of its brand and its value overall.

People have often wondered why corporations have felt the need to be so corporate. Clearly, coming across as efficient, organised and with a sense of confidence and competence to shareholders has its benefits; you are not going to trust your money to something (and someone) who feels flaky. Organisational rules, guidelines and principles are in order. But these can so easily lapse into the stuffy and inhuman.

The definition of a corporation is a collection of people that come together as a company or group of companies that are authorised to act as a single entity. There it is in glorious black and white; a corporation is a collection of people. These people are all individuals and yet corporate life and expectations can homogenise and discourage the human. This is not so good for the image of ‘brand business’, nor usually the business’s brand.

If you charge up the websites of any of the top 10 companies in the FTSE 100 there is the usual obligatory ‘About Us’ tab. Within this there will be shots of the leadership team – more often than not, in a series of suits, ties and formal garb, with a spectrum from the serious to rictus smiles. Most are accompanied by a professional bio of qualifications and corporate experience, and maybe a cursory line about their personal life. It’s hardly surprising that the broader public can view business leaders as an alien nation. A language, an appearance, and certainly pay structures that are truly out of this world.

This is nothing at all personal, but compare the CEO shots of the biggest FTSE company (Royal Dutch Shell). Paid £17.2 million in 2019….

…with one of one of Airbnb’s co-founders. Worth $4.2bn in 2019.

Clearly, these two are in completely different sectors, with different expectations and start points. Hospitality is more ‘friendly’ than big oil and energy, but the public prefers to support those businesses that don’t look and behave like business as usual. That includes all the clues and cues give off by the people who run these businesses. And who is criticising the success and wealth of the Airbnb founders, vs the really angry criticism for corporate FTSE bosses? And yet both still have shareholders or potential shareholders to win over. You need to show up as a human, albeit a competent and appropriate one.

In today’s business environment the bottom line is that it’s in everyone’s interests for all organisations to become – and to be seen as - more human. That means business people acting and looking more like human beings who have families, partners, pets, consciences, pulses. Even a sense of humour. Companies now have to report, account for and demonstrate what they are doing in terms of diversity, equality, pay gaps and generally better behaviour and it is good to be able to report some progress about making the business world more human and empathetic. Yet still it feels like much of this is lip service (like the About Us section on corporate websites). For instance, I read a report recently that revealed women will have to wait until the year 2236 for pay inequality to disappear – that’s a slightly stretching 217 years. However, unless more businesses embrace their human side by then we may well all be in dire straits anyway. It is my fundamental belief that businesses need to be sustainably successful if we’re to generate the kind of money we need to pay for schools, hospitals and civil society. Businesses need to behave as though the rest of the world matters…because it does. It’s all very well to say that a business is only responsible to shareholders and treat that as a proxy for making as much short-term profit as possible. But the longer-term responsibilities of business, to generate sustainable wealth that employs people reliably and looks after customers are as fundamentally important – and shareholders themselves aren’t just faceless institutions. They’re staff, pensioners, ordinary people with savings and a stake in society. And if we don’t have clean air to breathe, if there are no resources left and the majority lead miserable lives, who cares what the quarterly results say?

Nice business is good business indeed, which is why this is a call to arms for business leaders. Be more human and nice.

What do I mean by this? Here’s my 12 top tips:

  1. Build empathy with people inside and outside by listening and encouraging
  2. Run a business as a human enterprise with balanced metrics like customer, employee, social and environmental measures rather than just profits (these are directly connected anyway)
  3. Do your very best for customers vs the least you can get away with
  4. Be honest when you make mistakes and go beyond the call of legal duty to put it right
  5. Set out to help your people be brilliant (vs setting them up to fail)
  6. Take difficult decisions, but be humane and helpful at preparing people for a new job
  7. Recognise toxic people and if they can’t be healed, ask them to leave a business, no matter their financial value to the business
  8. Be curious and open-minded about new ways of working and new business models
  9. Get people involved in the future of the business and adapt the business in a timely and appropriate way
  10. Recognise that if you don’t make sure that society more broadly understands and benefits from what you do, business won’t be seen to work for them
  11. Be nice to animals and life on earth as well as humans
  12. Have dogs in the office and/or on video conference calls (OK, my business partner would like me to include that one)

Not that much to ask, really.

If any of this makes sense to you, then I hope you might enjoy my new book coming out in 2020!

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