I am what they call a social entrepreneur, committed to the breaking down of socio-economic barriers by fostering new enterprise. Does that mean I am a left wing radical? Far from it. In fact, I left a successful private business career in 2005 to create wealth for the entrepreneur, shareholders and society. (I also came across the Atlantic from my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, to be with the woman I loved in this great county of ours, Yorkshire.
But that is another story.) I carry out my work by raising aspirations and creating opportunities for those in the most disadvantaged areas of the UK; places like Harehills in the east end of Leeds, where we recently opened the Shine business incubator centre. My organisation, the Camberwell Project, develops such award-winning properties and creates robust networks to realise this vision. Yes, the focus is very much on social enterprise, which may or may not mean a profit straight away.
But even if it doesn’t, what is often overlooked is that such organisations also create opportunities for businesses from more affluent parts of the country to take advantage of. Social enterprises still need suppliers, consultants and so on. This is social entrepreneurship at its best.
But of course we are now in 2009, in the depths of a recession. So what is it like to do business as a social entrepreneur in this climate? Well, it’s pretty much the same as it is to do business wherever you are. Tough. But it really is amazing to see how the world changes before your eyes when a recession sets in.
And I don’t just mean the price of things, the unemployment, the dour faces or even the opportunities. I mean the way people change. I am amazed that in a modern society we respond to widespread scarcity in such a completely neanderthal way. If you present an acute scarcity or a crisis – a famine in Africa, say, or an earthquake – everyone rallies round for 10 minutes, determined to help where they can. But when it comes to an obtuse scarcity like a recession, it’s every man or woman for themselves.
I have experienced more uncooperativeness with business partners in the last 12 months than I ever did in the last 36 months. In fact, I am convinced that in a perverse way many people are worried that if they do not protect themselves at all costs, even to the detriment of their partners, they will suffer.
It seems to be a case of battening down the hatches and sitting it out. Although how long we are to sit it out, or even what it is we are supposed to be sitting out, seems to be anybody’s guess. Such a scenario is an interesting one to study, however.
Because I felt that if we look closely at the response to the recession, in particular those partners who actually are sticking with you, we can find the solution to an entire universe of social and economic problems.
Because after all, when you look closely at what are we doing to weather the storm, you should – I hope – feel that in our business relationships we are doing the same thing we did when the economy was at full tilt.
You can call them what you like, but we should follow some simple rules borrowed from the Mexican spiritualist Miguel Ruiz, themselves borrowed from the wisdom of theToltecs, an ancient Mexican tribe. (Okay, so this sounds terribly New Age, but what of it? I’m an American, and we are allowed to get away with such things).
Ruiz summed up his beliefs into four rules or agreements which he spelled out in a best-selling book, The Four Agreements, published in 1997. The first of these is that you should always do your best - always be more, much more, than good enough, and always stretch youself for the client. Secondly, you should above all maintain the integrity of your words.
That means not speaking poorly about fellow clients, colleagues or others in the business behind their backs. Then you should never assume – certainly not assume that you always know what the client is thinking, good or bad. Finally you should never take things personally. After all, people are hardwired to be funny and cheerful, and they mostly want to do good.
So don’t take it personally if your business is threatened by someone. That only wastes time and energy. Instead, you should use logic to mitigate any threats that you might perceive. If all that sounds a little too high-minded, I would like to add a fifth rule or agreement of my own. And that is a simple one. Have fun.
Enjoying what you do is the best way to improve your performance. It’s silly really, when you think about it. All you need to know in business is what you learned in reception at primary school. But these simple rules are the foundation for extremely successful businesses and when they are broken on a regular basis or in an extreme way, it usually signals the downfall for that business. Need proof? Just take a look at the companies featured in Good to Great, a book about how small companies grow to be great written by Jim Collins, another American business guru I admire (and I promise he will be the last one I mention). Just about every company mentioned – companies like Kimberly Clark and Wells Fargo - followed these principles in their own ways.
I only say all this because now more than ever, you need to be leading your business with integrity. It’s all very well preaching about how you as a business will operate when times are good.
Are you still going to operate the same way when times are bad? If not, why not? What exactly are the rules of a business that shows integrity? A good friend once told me: “Integrity is how you act when no one is looking”.
I think that’s incredibly important. There are endless examples you can come up with of businesses and business leaders who appeared to show great integrity when the spotlight was on them, only to come unstuck later on. Just remember that the spotlight can’t be on you all the time, and when it goes off that should be no reason to change your attitude.
Integrity of your word, of your work and of your leadership is paramount at all times.
Because we are all confronted with integrity challenges every day. And those challenges mean that you must choose between profit and loss. If you lead with integrity, you will sometimes have to choose loss. In the current climate that can be a hard choice. But in the long run you will find that it is the only one you can make. Now here endeth the lesson. Go away and have fun.
Todd Hannula is managing director of the Camberwell Project, a Leeds-based consultancy for social enterprises. He was named Young Director of the Year at this year’s Yorkshire and Humber Director of the Year Awards, run by the Institute of Directors.
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