If Covid has done anything it has focussed the mind. On many things, one of which is the mind itself.
We’ve heard Boris talk of mental health in almost every press briefing since the crisis began. We've heard talk of workplace wellbeing initiatives, of creating “people-first” cultures, and that people, purpose and planet matter now more than ever.
These are values that the B Corp movement has recognised for years. So what can these paragons of purpose teach us?
Written by Philippa Richardson.
What impact do your business decisions and practices have on your people? B Corps sign a legal agreement to confirm their board members will always consider the impact on their stakeholders when making decisions. 'Stakeholders' aren't just shareholders, they include employees, suppliers, and society.
B Corps usually address a social or environmental need, either as part of their core business – like Bulb, an energy supplier helping lower carbon impact, or through the way they operate – like The Big Issue, where part of their business offers employment opportunities to people in poverty.
Most of us now have a mission statement. But the B Corps show us how to meet higher standards of transparency, accountability, and performance – balancing purpose with profit by searing it into their Articles of Association.
In many ways the B Corp movement is leading this progressive charge. Certified B Corps are a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment, adhering to minimum environmental, social and governance standards. They are a community and a global movement using business as a force for good.
As leaders of this emerging model, they even have a Declaration of Interdependence, which goes as follows:
From my recent discussions with some of their leaders, it seems to me that there’s lots they can teach us.
Here are 5 fundamental questions to ask ourselves as a starter…
Arguably the most important of the three P’s – the B Corp certification prioritises the workforce. It recognises that a business is nothing without its people, and sets out the key recommendations for supporting them, on which all B Corps are judged:
UK B Corps Callaly, Human After All (exactly…) and ScienceMagic.Inc all partner with The Circle Line to offer many of the above to their workforce.
Claire Birch, Human Resources Director at ScienceMagic.Inc explains their approach,
“We recognise that our talented staff are our greatest asset which is why we have worked hard to ensure employees have opportunities for professional development, as well as wellbeing and personal development initiatives, such as The Circle Line. B Corp helps our business on the path of improvement by continually raising standards.”
Sally Procopis of law firm B Corp Bates Wells says,
“We want to have a positive impact on our people who are our greatest asset, so that they can have a positive impact on others.”
Lizzie Penny, Co-Founder and Joint CEO of Hoxby (a community creating a “happier, more fulfilled world society through a world of work without bias”) talks of how she aims “to create a core business foundation that is consistent, supportive, nurturing and rewarding”. This seems to epitomise the B Corp mentality: people with a shared vision, who are recognised as humans not “resources”.
Support and nurture? Aren’t these words traditionally more associated with the therapy couch than the boardroom? The B Corps recognise and embrace just that; that people need support, development, unlocking potential – and business benefits when we allow humanness in the workplace.
Or, if you’re honest, are you just talking the talk?
How many of the above initiatives and benefits does your business embrace – and not just as a token, but as part of your daily work life? Are your self-development and mental health initiatives embedded i.e. visible? Every week? Is self-development talked about? We need more than a crisis line and a “mental health day” once a year.
The B Corp requirements encourage such initiatives to be embedded within a business as a matter of course. Hugh Robertson, Founder & CEO of creative experience agency RPM describes one of RPM’s initiatives:
“I believe the one of the most valuable initiatives we have launched over the years has been our Mental Health First Aiders – a group of individuals, especially motivated by the drive to destigmatise mental health in the workplace.”
I’m 100% for destigmatising mental health challenges, often still seen through a Victorian-era lens as signs of “weakness”. And I think the mental health first aid initiative is a positive step forward – when we recognise and apply clear limits on its role, and are aware of the ethical issues. We need to be mindful of putting pressure on staff to “look after” other staff. We can be compassionate fellow humans, but it’s not their job.
I also wonder if the B Corp worker criteria go far enough… Because:
And then there is the elephant in every meeting room that can oppress, or at least impacts, all employees – power. The emerging Teal movement has lots to say on power, and how we can reorganise to better distribute it in our businesses. It would be a good start just to truly acknowledge it.
Now more than ever we want to do the right thing by our people, and we feel the weight of that responsibility.
Robertson at RPM says,
“Our founding principle thirty years ago was to create a business that felt deeply responsible for its people and its work, believing we should value all of our many stakeholders equally – being the change we wanted to see in the world. Central to our values has been workplace culture – looking after our people through opportunity, support and professional nourishment.”
It’s an inspiring outlook.
No adult can be responsible for another adult’s mindset. Yet we can follow RPM’s sterling example of compassionate leadership. And what’s more, the law dictates that employers have legal responsibilities for the physical and mental health of employees.
Legal responsibility aside, we’re missing an opportunity by ignoring the power of psychology. And unless your leaders are experts in the human psyche that probably means bringing in professionals to learn about psychology and apply day-to-day what it can teach us.
One curious aspect of most B Corps: it seems their leaders had to have had the vision and values in the first place.
This can’t be avoided. It is the leader that crystallises and enshrines the purpose for the company. This in itself works as a motivational force, for a sense of purpose is something we all need in our work and life.
As Thang Vo-Ta, Co-Founder of period care brand Callaly says
“We always knew we wanted to balance purpose and profit. We wanted to be rooted in purpose and honour… What kind of legacy do you want to leave?”
Tom Rippin, CEO of On Purpose, seems to chime with this,
”Purpose is not a new solution to an old problem; it’s a new way to understand the world, which changes the problems we see. Practising this shift is the most important thing we can do with our colleagues.”
Hugh Robertson at RPM describes how he and their leadership team already believed in the B Corp values, before becoming one.
“Becoming a B Corporation was a natural evolution for RPM. Much of the excellent People framework they propose had been in place at RPM for a while but we hadn’t formalised elements which B Corp rigorously requires to really ensure that you are walking the walk, and doing what you say. Being able to hold ourselves up to this framework and see opportunity for further development is very exciting for both the business and the individuals in it.”
Sally Procopis of law firm Bates Wells says something eerily similar… I’m sensing a theme here:
“At Bates Wells, we are asked frequently what made us decide to become the UK’s first law firm B Corp. Was it something to use in marketing that would win us more work? Were we asked to do it by one of our clients? It was neither of these things. The simple answer is that it was a natural step for the type of organisation that we are. The values and the actions demanded by the B Corporation certification were already there within our business.”
So, it seems there’s general agreement that the triple bottom line approach is not a tick-box solution, or a marketing wheeze; it reflects an outlook on the world that already exists in the leadership.
It may feel as if Covid has changed everything, but a significant event usually only throws a spotlight on what was already there.
Lizzie Penny’s view on developing their scattered workforce is a great lesson for us in a post-Covid world, showing physical proximity isn’t essential for a positive people culture:
“Because Hoxbies have always worked entirely remotely, the concept of traditional leadership has been reimagined, reinvented and made fit for purpose in a digital workplace. Communication, transparency and inclusion are central to Alex and my leadership, and so we use technology in a super agile way, proving that work can be both productive and enjoyable without the need for presenteeism or the traditional 9-5 working day.”
And some B Corps have taken a giant leap into truly empowering their people – in fact, they don’t empower employees at all, rather they transfer power to them. Take Adlib recruitment agency, a 100% employee-owned business with an employee Board in charge. Adlib’s founder Nick Dean explains:
“I’m a huge believer in stakeholder not shareholder capitalism. In 2020 ADLIB transitioned into 100% employee-ownership, a model which has aligned the vision of each and every employee, brought complete commercial transparency throughout the business and created a collective voice that shapes who and what we stand for.”
Nick Clegg once extolled a vision of the UK as a “John Lewis economy”. Now, employee ownership is gradually appearing as a valid and desirable business model, contributing £30bn of the UK’s GDP annually, according to the Employee Ownership Association.
Could this open the door to a fairer more democratic future of business, where the wealth generated is shared with the workers who generated it?
Perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves some deeper questions… What drives your business forward – your profit or your purpose? Who is really responsible for your success – the market, your Board, or your people?
And, crucially, what are you willing to do to support and develop your workforce to allow them to be the equal, talented, unique beings that they are, to embody your purpose and drive it forward together?
Don’t yet have all the answers? Talk to us and start putting your people first: [email protected]
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