From Compliance to Responsibility

The role of the company within the Australian economic landscape is well established, but as we find ourselves surrounded by what some interpret as ominously apocalyptic operating environments – floods, fires and plagues – the role of organisational responsibility is taking centre stage. But the question being asked is now broader than simply: what do we need to do to meet our social requirements? We are now beginning to ask: what should we do, given the power and influence that we have?

The real question: How might we become organisations of positive social change?

Companies are seen to hold more than a duty to simply comply with the law, and face increasing public pressure to uphold virtues in keeping with an expanding social morality. The merits of this can be debated relentlessly, but as this debate ensues it’s important for directors and executives to give serious attention to the ways in which they can steer their organisations beyond cultures of legal compliance toward cultures of responsibility and care. 

At AVENIR we believe in fostering leadership that keeps a keen eye on the future, and is capable of imagining and cultivating a world of flourishing for all. And so when it comes to directors, our goal is to open conversations about the future that focus on how organisation can contribute to meaningful change in the world. 

When it comes to issues like climate change, the automation of the workforce, rising dependence on AI, and epidemics of anxiety and depression, it is corporations – the backbone of Australian working life – who have the capacity to create environments that support health, wellbeing, and stability. 

But why should we – we’re here to make money, that’s our contribution?

It’s a valid question. In Australia the role of shareholder primacy has a long history, but failing to observe the shifting tides of cultural thought has often proven financially detrimental. If you turn on your newsfeed you will find plenty of examples of corporations being dragged through the coals for actions that are deemed to fall short of our collective social responsibility. These may not be failures of legal compliance, but there are understood to be failures of social and moral responsibility. 

When your operations begin to impact lives, families, and cultures (and most companies have at least a minor impact on one or more of these spheres) then there is a level of assumed responsibility that extends beyond merely doing the bare minimum. 

Organisations, by virtue of their existence, are part of an economic ecosystem that impacts so much of our shared national life. This simple fact alone is an argument in favour of directors – the mind of the company – beginning to explore how they can increasingly consider a broad range of stakeholders in their deliberations, without compromising long-term shareholder value. 

Stakeholders such as the environment, the direct and indirect community surrounding the company, the culture within which the organisation exists, and even the future generations that the company’s operations might impact, are all increasingly important considerations.

In 2016, Noel Huntley delivered the now oft-quoted opinion piece where he claimed that it would only be a matter of time before a director was sued for a failure to perceive climate-related risk. With subsequent judicial decisions indicating that a broadening duty of care is owed by both organisations and governments to stakeholders such as the environment, and even children, it seems likely stewardship of the future should now become a regular feature of governance deliberation. 

Jon Bergmann

Experience or Contribution?

It was one of those “snap” experiences.  I was the second speaker at a conference.  Unbeknown to me, the first speaker had framed his presentation on the exact same topic that I had prepared for. It was one of those situations where I saw failure on the horizon as I frantically wondered how much I was going to have to delete from my notes.  As it turned out, it was fantastic to hear Dr Matt Kutz speak with clarity and energy on the subject of contextual intelligence.  Encountering his work was like finding a missing puzzle piece that I’d been looking for.  His book, “Contextual Intelligence” is absolutely worth reading.

I want to consider one of Matt’s assertions that, in order to respond well as leaders in constantly changing environments, we need to be thinking in terms of contribution rather than experience.

Most leaders work their way into leadership roles over time on the basis of study and experience.  We “prove our worth” through demonstrated capacity.  So, when challenges come, it is assumed that we have a bank of proven experience to draw from.  This is great when challenges are predictable but we’re no longer living in times of predictability.  So, the question must be asked: “Does experienced based leadership practice have any currency in an unpredictable world?” 

The answer, according to Dr Kutz is “yes” but “not for the reason you think.”  Effective leadership practice needs to pivot towards developing the skill to ask better questions and involve others in the process of navigating complexity.  Effective leaders bring their best contribution through naming the challenge and welcoming the capacities and experiences of the team.  Contemporary effective leadership understands that as change appears on the horizon, it’s possible that the novice may be more likely to have a solution for an emerging problem than the experienced leader.

Tania Watson

The Busier We Get, The More We Need To Slow Down

When we get busy, we instinctively just do more.

The logic is there is more to do and that means we need to do more.

We probably reason it won’t always be this way, so we exert extra effort in the hope our situation will soon improve and things can get back to normal. Whatever normal is.

The ‘work harder when we get busier’ mantra may work every now and then when there are genuine peaks of busyness in our lives. But constant busyness is a trap. It’s not healthy and if we are honest, it probably doesn’t produce our best work.

And, as I’ve found through bitter experience, it’s not a trap you can crawl out of the same way you get in.

Sometimes the best solutions are the complete opposite of what we may first think.

The moment I begin to feel over-committed, I set aside at least 30 minutes, and even up to an hour, and take my notebook and pen (not usually my phone) and sit in a quiet place, usually a cafe.

I don’t feel bad about doing this.

I know more will be achieved in the next 30 minutes than would ever be done by tackling the next task on my to do list while I am in an overloaded state of mind.

With coffee in hand, I begin to write down all of the things that have logged-jammed in my mind and cause me to feel too busy. All of them — work stuff, family, personal — I don’t leave anything out. As I’ve written previously, I also write out the why of every action.

I don’t mind how many times I’ve written the same to-do list, I write it out again. Owning my current state of busyness is vitally important to actually doing something about it.

I don’t rush the process. In fact — again borrowing from the counter-intuitive — I deliberately slow everything down. I write my list slowly. I drink my coffee slowly. I slow down my breathing.

It might take 20 minutes or more, but once I’ve dumped everything into my lists, I’m ready then to do two very simple things.

First, I am ready to assess the overall magnitude of my situation. Is it actually real? Sometimes I’ve found that it is only one, or maybe two tasks that have caused the feeling of overwhelm.

When that is the case, I break those bigger tasks down into smaller ones. A big task that’s been on my mind might actually require four or five steps to complete. So, I write each of those steps down. I make sure I am clear on why each step is important.

Second, if my situation is still genuinely log-jammed, I look for ways to relieve pressure. I relax self-imposed deadlines first. Just cutting myself some slack, usually relieves more than half my pressure. It does not involve having to negotiate with others, nor do I feel like I’m letting anyone down.

If I’m still feeling uncomfortable about what’s in front of me — and occasionally I do — it gives me a very clear road-map for who I need to speak to, and about what. If I need a deadline extended, I can be much clearer about my need for more time, because I have taken the time to clearly weigh up all of my circumstances and other commitments.

If I was to have a conversation about extending a deadline before taking the time to consider my situation, I’m likely to risk either over or under-reacting and can make matters worse.

After this process, I always feel better. I feel like I’m back in control even though in that half hour or so, I haven’t actually done a single thing on my list.

Stopping like this also has a longer term benefit. It has made me much better at not perpetually over-committing. Unless we learn to better schedule ourselves, and know our limits, we will constantly find ourselves feeling overloaded and in the futile loop of fighting busyness with more busyness.

Recently, someone saw me at a cafe when I was re-prioritising my schedule and said something like “It’s easy for some. I’d love your job.” I smiled as they hurried away, and took their observation as the ultimate compliment.

Just half an hour earlier I had felt too busy to think.

Jeff Miller