What can we expect from Howard’s way?April 2008
EP talks to the new chief executive of Business in the Community about expansion, putting pressure on members – and working more closely with other organizations
Expect a significant change of style at the top of Business in the Community. Last month Bitc’s chief executive Julia Cleverdon stepped aside after 16 years to pursue other interests, handing her office by the Regent’s Canal in London to her deputy Stephen Howard, who is about as far from Cleverdon’s jolly head-girl style as it’s possible to get.
For one thing Howard is an American, although now well anglicized, having lived in the UK for 17 years. For another, the 55-year-old is a sober-suited corporate figure, steeped in CEO culture and a veteran of stints at the top of two multinationals (Novar and Cookson).
Where Cleverdon, schooled in industrial relations, was bubbly and cajoling, Howard is measured and more quietly persuasive. Where his predecessor was ebullient and combative, he is restrained and diplomatic. And while Cleverdon was inclined to mention Bitc president Prince of Wales at the drop of a hat, Howard does not mention him once during his interview with EP.
While the switch in style may come as a relief to some and a disappointment to others, it is unlikely to lead to a significant change in substance. Howard concedes that ‘I come in with much more of a managerial, corporate perspective on life’ but it’s clear that he shares most of Cleverdon’s preoccupations and aims.
Like his forerunner, Howard emphasizes the need to expand the membership, even though Bitc already has more than 800 corporate signatories. He talks enthusiastically of recruiting substantially more than the ten private equity houses already in membership, and has plans to bring in more companies from outside the UK, though he is quick to add that ‘we’re not going to be opening up offices around the world’.
However, in the final analysis, says Howard, ‘our game isn’t about market share, it’s about helping business’. One of his priorities will therefore be to focus on ‘driving impact’ – judging Bitc’s success ‘not by how many members we have but instead by what difference we are actually making to those in membership’.
That may signal at least one subtle departure from the Cleverdon era, and it will mean Bitc demanding more of those within its flock. ‘It’s true that we do need to provide a bit more challenge to our members,’ Howard concedes. ‘We say that we aim to “inspire, engage, support and challenge”, and while we are brilliant at the inspiring part we could do more on the challenge side.’
Nonetheless, like Cleverdon before him, Howard rejects the notion that Bitc should be more public in its demands on members. ‘Never say never, but it’s difficult for me to envision being publicly critical of an individual company. If we do that then we lose our ability to effect change behind the scenes. There are plenty of other organizations out there in the naming and shaming business; that’s not what we do. I think we can be most effective working from within and having the trust of our members.’
He may, however, be more inclined than Cleverdon to acknowledge that Bitc has existed for too long in its own bubble, failing to engage with the wider corporate responsibility community that has grown up since the organization was formed in 1982.
‘Maybe that’s true, I honestly don’t know, but it’s entirely possible. If we are ploughing our own furrow then we are missing an opportunity, because we have to work with others. We need to increase the collaboration if we’re going to increase the sense of urgency.’
Significantly, though, Howard’s off-the-cuff solution to this dilemma is ‘to make sure others within organizations know what we are doing’ – a response that might perpetuate the feeling that Bitc is more interested in what others need to learn from itself rather than the other way round. He also hints at a rather defensive attitude to partnerships by suggesting that ‘many organizations’ idea of collaboration is us giving them access to our membership so they can sell something to them’. And he argues that the CSR profession ‘has sometimes made this whole area much more complex than it really is’.
On the other hand, Howard insists that ‘there are no sacred cows’ and that Bitc will change its modus operandi if necessary. Here he seems suddenly impatient, stressing the urgency of the social and environmental problems facing business.
‘We’ve got to get to the next level now,’ he argues. ‘We don’t have time to waste, and we need companies to quite significantly change their behaviour in some areas. There are others in this arena who have a clear voice, and we want to work with them. Our convening power is one of our great strengths, so we need to look at how we use that more effectively.’
Whatever Cleverdon’s widely acknowledged strengths – and there were many – perhaps Howard’s new approach may be the key to doing just that.
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