Geo-economics

Can creative accountability help you build a better business?

Blair Glencorse
Founder and Executive Director, The Accountability Lab
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Businesses can help to solve global challenges while remaining dynamic and profitable — by fostering a culture of accountability.

It has never been good enough for businesses to think only about the bottom line. But corporate engagement around the critical issues of our time — sustainability, inequality and corruption — is now more pressing than ever. Our planet is heating up, the income gap between rich and poor is growing, and graft is ubiquitous. The 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer indicates that trust in business leaders is at an all-time low; while a recent Gallup poll showed that just 13 percent of employees are engaged at work.

At the same time, from a purely money-making perspective, it is critical that businesses foster innovation, creativity and problem-solving if they are to survive and prosper. Traditional business models, antiquated management systems and outmoded value chains are being disrupted by new technologies and thinking, driven by a younger generation of employees that cannot be ignored. Indeed, by 2025 millennials will represent 75 percent of the global workforce.

How can businesses both help to solve our collective global challenges and ensure they remain dynamic, profitable and great places to work? One word: accountability. Building a more innovative conception of, and culture around, accountability — through which staff and management take personal responsibility and are answerable for decisions and actions to each other — builds trust, improves outcomes and can and lead to all kinds of new ideas and approaches.

Since reaching a settlement for corrupt business practices in 2008, this is something that Siemens has understood fully, for example. Honest and open efforts to change the culture of accountability internally have rooted out corruption and supported significant growth in revenues; while support for its Integrity Initiative externally has catalyzed creative ideas for accountability more broadly.

It sounds intuitive, but few companies — particularly those we’ve seen working in the developing world — take this issue seriously enough. They often have well developed accountability systems and compliance training to adhere to laws, but this is very different than truly nurturing a mindset of integrity in a way that changes outcomes. This is not as much about enforcement or punishment as it is about values and culture. If staff, management and their partners trust each other and are mutually accountable, they can take the risks needed to truly reimagine the possible.

What does this mean in practice? First, with existing employees, it means moving away from tired trainings or boring workshops and toward interactive sessions that engage staff in ways they understand and enjoy. At the Accountability Lab, we use film, music and role-playing to make accountability relevant.

It also means making the process of building integrity fun and interesting — through honoring “compliance champions,” for example; or thinking through how “ambient accountability” might fit into the workplace. Accountability leads to more honest conversations, and the learning this openness generates builds feedback loops that improve performance.

Second, in terms of recruiting, it requires tapping into the new generation of globally minded employees and aligning corporate actions with their values. In Lithuania, for example, students are mobilizing around the Clear Wave initiative — which provides a certification for clean businesses — by signing their own petition publicly indicating that they will only work for companies on the Clear Wave list. This kind of Millennial-driven change is only going to increase as the best graduates look for a combination of interest, money and value in their jobs — and companies that want to stay relevant must get ahead of the curve.

Finally, in today’s world, corporate accountability means engaging external stakeholders on accountability issues — companies are expected by consumers not only to ensure their own integrity, but also that of their suppliers, distributors and partners. This means understanding the links between business and society more broadly, and actively working to help employees use novel tools to track economic, social and environmental risks. Organizations like Ulula are using new ideas and technologies along these lines, which can change the way companies understand their broader impact.

Corporations have a critical role to play in building a better world for the future. At the same time, companies that value accountability tend to have higher valuations, be more attractive to potential employees and investors, and are more likely to create the stability they need to operate effectively over the long-term. For business, accountability is a strategic investment — What are you waiting for?

This article is published in collaboration with Ideas Lab. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Blair Glencorse is Executive Director of the Accountability Lab. Nora Rahimian is an Arts for Change Strategist at the Accountability Lab. 

Image: A clerk closes the door before a round table talk. REUTERS/Pascal Lauener

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