If business is to be defined by the narrow value of profits, then it will never win the trust of the community – and in the long-term it needs this trust to make the profits, says communications consultant Steve Manallack*, CEO, Australia India Business Council.
Brand experts and advertising gurus tell us that "caring is commercial", and when inspirational leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi urged us to aim for complete harmony of thought, word and deed, he was outlining a strongly commercial value system for business, but this has not changed the behaviour or profile of many business leaders.
The problem of poor image for business continues to grow, as Mr Kumar Mangalam Birla, chairman of The Aditya Birla Group, has pointed out. "The world of business today is going through a crisis of trust, where the credibility of business leaders and the legitimacy of business organisations are subjected to questioning, " he says.
India's first major multinational company, The Aditya Birla Group has over 72,000 employees sourced from over 20 nationalities. The company produces viscose stable fibre, cement, metals, branded apparel, chemicals and is the number two private sector insurance company and fourth largest asset management company in India.
Mr Birla knows that "caring is commercial" and he puts it this way "Once again, people are searching for the soul of the corporation."
One of the positive impacts of a values based business is in the performance of people. Again, Mr Birla highlights this, "People contribute when they relate to an organisation, and they relate when they understand the organisation. And people understand an organisation through its values, by experiencing the culture that the values create and by using the systems and processes that the values define."
As the Indian economy unleashes immense opportunities for business growth, it is important that beacons like Mr Birla shine on the leadership and values opportunities that can grow at the same time. In fact, these can underpin long-term success for Indian business.
For example, on business television we see a tough CEO fronting an aggressive media at an annual meeting and declaring in no-compromise tone, "Our task it to manage the business to provide maximum return for our shareholders - end of story". But is it? If business is to be defined by the narrow value of profits, then it will never win the trust of the community - and in the long-term it needs this trust to make the profits.
To paraphrase one of Gandhi's wonderful quotes, when hypothetically asked today what he might think about Western business ethics, would he again say, "I think it would be a good idea".
What could Mahatma Gandhi offer to the modern debate about leadership and values? First he would be a strong advocate for applying your ethics to all parts of life, with no exceptions. That is, business is no different from your life in community or family, so apply the same ethics.
Gandhi would stand today for complete honesty in business, for generating good profits but at the same time giving back to the community in which you operate. He would regard business very much as a service to the community, not merely a generator of windfall profits.
He would also urge business to bring people together and to foster community. He would probably be suspicious of many multinationals and you could imagine him campaigning on contemporary environmental issues, pointing out with great passion that business needs to be a friend of the earth.
Finally, we know that Gandhi would dislike much modern advertising, advocating instead that business does not manipulate and never deceive via advertising and marketing.
This caring approach to leadership is often seen in the West as too soft, but it can have commercial outcomes - a survey of 7,500 workers by US firm Watson Wyatt found real dollar benefits within caring organizations: highly committed employees produce a 112 per cent three year total return to shareholders, whereas those with low employee commitment returned 76 per cent.
Add to that research showing that when businesses lose customers, in 70 per cent of cases they are lost because they do not like the human side of doing business with you.
The evidence for caring goes further and lends more support to the Gandhian approach; the Gallup group is the leading researcher into what makes up a strong brand, and their findings highlight the value of human qualities. Gallup looked at customer loyalty and brand advantage, finding people want a brand that:
listens to me, cares for me
reliably delivers what it promises
is always interesting by being different or innovative
wraps up our dealings smoothly and simply
is happy, and projects this happiness
In training leaders and managers to improve their communication, I often say: "nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care".
Mr Birla has explained the extent of his commitment to values, "Great businesses are never built on the quick sands of opportunism. I reiterate that if living by our values means, perhaps, growing at a pace slower than we would otherwise have liked, so be it. For us, leadership lies at the heart of knowing what we stand for."
But for many business leaders, this step into the personal side, into human values such as caring and listening, is foreign territory; after all, business schools and work experience have taught them little about caring for others. Now we know there are real dollars and real advantages in doing just that.
One wise sage said that a man wrapped up in himself is a small parcel. And Gandhi told us "As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, keep it." He went on to say "You must be the change you want to see in the world." Today the western business world needs more beacons, leaders who can show that the caring side of life does have a positive role in the world of commerce.
*Stephen Manallack is a communication consultant, professional speaker and trainer. His training programs include creating a corporate communication culture, and how managers and leaders can create engaged employees. Stephen is the author of You Can Communicate (Pearson 2002). He is a member of the committee of management of the Australia India Business Council.