Change the perception of business

2019-10-18 15:57

We need to create leaders with foresight and depth, which might mean bravely destroying the old as we create new and better value, writes Jon Foster-Pedley.

When we look about us, we see the truth everywhere of the failure of any of the three meta narratives of the 20th century – capitalism, communism and fascism. Each has proved to be unsustainable in the end.

In fact, if we were to be totally honest, the world’s slavish adherence to each has, in some cases, sped up the inevitable descent to where we are now, which, in South Africa’s case, is the incredible inequality of the world’s worst Gini coefficient – the yawning gulf between those who have and those who do not.

In this case, we can firmly put the blame not just on capitalism, but also on the racial socialism that privileged one set of people at the expense of all others in the country.

We compete for rankings and we chase accolades to be seen to be better than others, which must inherently mean that those on the lower rungs are worse than those who are above

To escape this death spiral will mean breaking the entire geographical, spatial, economic, social and psychological structure of this system. But how do we do that?

The great 21st-century seer Yuval Noah Harari speaks of the need for us to find another narrative – another story around which to coalesce and find meaning and purpose – while the former dean of the Oxford Said Business School, Colin Mayer, argues that businesses should create prosperity rather than chase profits, exploding the myopic genie that Milton Friedman let out of the bottle in 1970 when he argued that the entire purpose and meaning of business was to make returns on shareholders’ investment and reward them.

We see now just how toxic that injunction was. We see it in the wreckage of state capture and corporate collusion. We see it when competing for markets where we can no longer compete on our merits. We see it in the bending of rules and the suborning of the entire system to win those advantages to keep feeding the maw of the bottom line. We see it in the unchanging poverty and dearth of either economic modernisation or diversification.

Which then begs the question: Is our fixation on competition part of the problem?

I think it is. It’s an illness that infects us all, even business schools. We compete for rankings and we chase accolades to be seen to be better than others, which must inherently mean that those on the lower rungs are worse than those who are above.

We do it to keep our enrolments up and to remain viable because, in the end, we are all business units of an educational system that, if not wholly subsidised by the state, has become totally corporatised to survive.

When we do this, we run the same risks that have befallen the corporate sector that we seek both to guide and to provide with the next leaders and innovators. In short, we run the very real risk of becoming part of the institutional problem, not the solution.

We should be creating leaders with foresight and depth, which in some cases means bravely destroying the old as we create new and better value – value that is calibrated to the long-term wellbeing of all our people, rather than the narrow and short-term sectarian interests of the shareholders and banks.

Business, though, is not at the heart of competition. It has always been about delivering and exchanging value

For business schools, it means turning out graduates across the entire spectrum of learning who can go back on to shop floors, into boardrooms and into their creative workspaces girded against intellectual dishonesty, but agile, empowered to lead, unafraid to experiment and keen to collaborate.

How do we do this? We do it as a business school by obsessing over our purpose, not our competition. I often get people asking me what our competitive advantage is and how we position ourselves against our competition. And I’m always dumbstruck. It doesn’t compute.

The fact is that, at Henley Africa, we blithely, sublimely and calmly ignore the idea of competition, which exasperates our ad agencies, which try to conceptualise our positioning strategies. But we are just not that interested.

Why? Because the only thing that matters to us is fulfilling our purpose, doing a great job and perfecting our craft, which is that “we build the people who built the businesses that build Africa”, and that right there is everything for us.

It keeps us honest, grounded and endlessly improving. And it’s the fastest way to improve the value we offer.

That dog-eat-dog concept of competition just doesn’t exist. When anyone asks us about any of the other business schools or providers who are ostensibly our competitors, we just say: “They are great. Go and work with them.”

It’s not a case of blind altruism. If anything, it’s enlightened self-interest because the more great teachers there are, the better off everyone will be.

We have a nation and a world to build – and we will do that by building a new breed of business leaders, not by changing the demographics of a shrinking existing elite in legacy industries.

Within that broad positive purpose, we love worthy adversaries who force us to sharpen up and who we can joust with, and so we can stimulate and ignite one another – but we don’t want to destroy them.

As much as we have instilled disruption and evolution into our DNA, the final leg of that trifecta is collaboration. We collaborate not just because it’s more fun, but because it provokes innovation; it stimulates creativity and the entrepreneurship that, together, help to create better outcomes all around for everyone involved – and it seems to bring us lots of business, too.

Business, though, is not at the heart of competition. It has always been about delivering and exchanging value. What we should be doing as business schools is evangelising the need for the toolboxes we all provide; for systems thinking that allows people to see the causality of what they do and prevent the consequences of bad decision-making from morphing into unethical and then downright illegal criminality in the form of corruption. It’s about ensuring that we work together to ensure that businesses, big and small, and government departments truly see the value of what we do in helping them to always create value. That way, we make the pie bigger for all of us instead of trying to cut out one another’s legs for slices of a pie that we are actually making smaller by not working together – and when we get it right, we will have the best chance yet of changing the lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.

The only question worth asking, then, is who’s in?

Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa and deputy chair of the SA Business Schools Association

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April 5 2020