One of the most disappointing aspects of working for the BBC in the 90s was the contrast between the image of the organisation externally and the realities of working there day to day.
This is a corporation with an admired global brand that had very little regard for its people. We were cattle - easily replaced by the queue of equally well-trained, desperate journalists who would give their right arm to take my job at Today or Woman's Hour.
Over the last week there have been a number of stories about how large corporations treat their suppliers, their staff and their customers. Tesco, HSBC and Waitrose have all been in the headlines and today David Cameron is talking about "a pay rise for the nation". The next elections seems to be about business, work and the economy.
But it seems to me that in every story, companies are trying to decide who to punish and who to reward. Tesco says it wants good prices for its customers so it squeezes the supplier. Of course, the truth is that it wants to show ever growing profits to its shareholders in a market where it is increasingly difficult to do so.
Waitrose sees its profits dwindle and blames customers for taking advantage of the free coffee they offer to loyalty card holders. (Don't forget a coffee, while it retails for £2-£3 is really just a cup of flavoured water).
HSBC is accused of helping customers dodge tax, something the public are very sensitive about seeing as most of us aren't able to dodge it ourselves.
But deciding who to favour and who to squeeze isn’t a sustainable long-term business strategy. When you treat your staff badly (by paying them too little, working them to the bone or creating an unpleasant working environment) you end up paying more because of the cost of staff turnover. It was Henry Ford’s rationale when he raised the wages of his workers 101 years ago. Also, when you treat your employees badly you can’t expect them to treat the customer well.
When you treat the customer badly you lose business. This includes disillusioning the customer by taking away their free coffee, helping richer customers dodge tax or treating suppliers badly. We don’t like that.
When you do all this for the shareholder, shareholders don’t like it. They don’t like companies that treat their staff badly because it hits the headlines and then the shareprice goes down. They don’t like it when you treat your suppliers badly because it hits the headlines and then the shareprice goes down. And they don’t like tax dodging because they are your customer and your suppliers. Typically shareholders are the companies that run our pension schemes and fund our bank loans.
The point is – we are all the customer, the employee, the supplier and the shareholder. You can’t cheat one of us without cheating us all.
Big business is under pressure. It’s very competitive out there. I know – I work with big company boards every week. But it’s a quick fix to favour one of your stakeholders over the others. It isn’t a sustainable business model. Politicians might be able to wade in to the debate about business, work and the economy every 3 or 4 years to win votes. But those of us who run businesses need to take a much longer-term look at how to create value not just this quarter or next quarter but this generation and next generation. And if that isn’t possible, we need to re-think the fundamentals of our business model.
So, where to start? I say, get your own house in order. Treat your staff right. Listen to them, give them a stake in the success of your business, help them to see the critical part they play. When they care about your business, they’ll care about your customer. When they care about your customers they will treat them right. Happy customers buy more and they don’t steal your coffee. Shareprices go up. And our pensions, savings and bank loans are secured. We need to break the link between quarterly results and a healthy business. There isn’t one. Measuring the success of your business by quarterly sales is like measuring whether your diet is working by getting on the scales every day. It doesn’t work like that. It’s time to get fit for life and not just fit for voting day.