I am sceptical of capitalism as it stands; anyone who had to blow the whistle on a boss for fraud will be, but I still believe that it’s the best system available to make the world work. Why? Because I believe it’s an effective system that’s being hijacked by a few really badly chosen incentives that are treated like first order principles – and that have diminished much needed governance.
If there’s a justification for believing capitalism can work, it’s as an elegant incentive for innovation and collaboration something to continue to strive towards in the long run. Bill Gates says that we tend to overestimate what we can achieve in a year, but underestimate what we can achieve in ten years’ time. Experience proves that if you give people work that has a purpose, that they care about and that gives them the freedom to use their talents to achieve mastery, they can do incredible things; it got us to the screen you are reading this article on after all.
Who am I anyway and why should you listen to me at all?
From my experience – as an executive coach and strategic adviser for the past 15 years: The problem is that in most corporates the balance is heavily biased towards the short-termism of the shareholder value doctrine; we tell the owners what we intend to bring in each quarter, we set a budget to meet this number we’ve often literally ‘pulled out of thin air’ – as one ex-executive of a famous Internet brand once admitted to me and then we make an industry of trying to meet the budget. In Corporate Reality TV, unfathomable amounts of talent energy are directed at writing reports and decks about why we’re not going to meet parts of the budget.
How can we change that?
Change starts with you. That’s a glib thing to say if you’re a social impact manager with little direct budget, a positive deviant struggling to get your voice heard by the P&L guys, but it’s nonetheless true.
You will not successfully catalyse change in others until you have started with yourself.
Repeat this to yourself, at least five times, because whether you are a CEO or an intern in the CSR team, it is true. Change starts with you, it can’t be a fantasy of future promises and warm words, it starts with action in the now, and you must be part of that action. If you don’t have the formal authority to decree a change and lead it, or are the CEO of the next Danone to go B-Corp, what can you do?
How to be an influencer
Corporations (like all organisations) have an immune system; this is hard-coded by unwritten rules about how we do things, hidden scripts and social mechanisms which prevent a “virus of change” taking hold – and sustainability programmes and social impact work might very well be seen as a virus infecting the host – if for example you regard the host as people who prioritise short-term results over ling-term sustainability in order to defend their bonuses which they may even have already committed to pay for their everyday lifestyles. As I said, bad incentives…When you try to make change from the middle or the bottom of the system (and sometimes even from the top as the tale of innogy’s ex-CEO Peter Terium can tell), that immune system fights you, and if you’re not careful, it will spit you out altogether.
You will not be able to change everyone, no matter who you are, but you don’t need to. You just have to be able to influence a minimal viable amount of the right people. Change is a process of experimenting, observing results, and then adapting your approach in fast iterations. If you can identify the people who others look to when deciding what to do, and infect them with your ideas, your change can spread fast. Your task is to identify how your personal dreams and quest of painting of a positive future can alleviate the currently experienced pain of these pivotal stakeholders. If you want to be a successful change agent, you have to find the liminal space in your corporate immune system that allows you to hang around for just long enough so that you can prove you are a welcome and beneficial addition or alteration to the DNA: and then you in turn become resistant against the mainstream’s antibiotic treatment attempts against you.
Why should anyone listen to you?
First of all, you need an edge; something that gives people with control over budgets confidence that you will make them look good. Then you need to build a deep connection fast to understand how they want to frame your quest so that they get backing from their bosses. And then you need to convert their lip service into hard commitments by making smart interventions – that includes elegantly keeping their feet in the fire if needed
Join Marcus at for his Corporate Social Innovation Zone Workshop: How to be a smart influencer.
If the issues raised in this article matter to you come to Oxford University on July 11th. Join 300 professionals and practitioners from AB InBev, AB Sugar, Anglo American, Avon, Barclays, Bayer, BNP Paribas, British Airways, British Red Cross, Cabinet Office, CARE, Cargill, CEMEX, DCMS, DFID, Fossil, Fujitsu, GSK, Hermes Investment, IFC, IIED, International Alert, JP Morgan, LIXIL, Mastercard, Merck, Mercy Corps, Mexichem, Moody’s Corporation, Nestle, Novo Nordisk, Novozymes, Oxfam, Pearson, Plan International UK, Primark, RB, Root Capital, SAP, Save the Children, Sky, Small Foundation, Standard Chartered, Tesco, Thomson Reuters Foundation, Twinings, Unicef UK, Unilever, Visa, Vitol Foundation, Vodafone, WBCSD, WWF UK, Zurich Insurance and many more. Tickets to Business Fights Poverty Oxford 2019 can be purchased here.