These are challenging times.
We are learning to live with Covid; transitioning both to a post-Brexit and to a low carbon economy; and faced with rising inflation, a major cost of living squeeze, an NHS that’s struggling to cope and, I’m afraid, a great deal more.
I have no doubt that the UK has the talent, determination and capacity for the innovation necessary to meet these challenges, and indeed exploit the opportunities concealed within them; but does it have the leadership? My fear is that we will be held back by a breakdown of trust in our leaders and our leaders’ integrity. All kinds of leadership matter – religious, community, charitable, intellectual… – but my focus here is our political and business leadership.
I vividly remember the moment when working at Siemens in 2008, when several of our executives were accused of paying bribes to secure lucrative contracts. I had always been proud to work at Siemens and proud of its culture. It was inspiring to be part of an organisation that had such a positive impact on society; and liberating to work for a company that believed as strongly as it seemed to in “Responsible and Cooperative Management” – the title of my first ever company management training course in the late 1980s. Now, I was forced to question that pride and that culture and, rather more than halfway through my career, whether I was in the right job.
Happily, it was soon clear that the company’s heart was in the right place. Its response was robust: an independent legal team with total freedom to seize and analyse all electronic and paper documentation held by management in 200 countries. I myself was confronted with a client agreement I had signed in Abu Dhabi, which I had forgotten, and was relieved when it was deemed right and proper. It was a thorough investigation, the polar opposite of a whitewash, and helped restore my trust in our company leadership.
So, too, did its consequences. The bribery turned out largely to have been confined to countries well known for corruption. Nevertheless, several members of the Siemens Board lost their jobs for failing to create the culture or institute the procedures required to combat and prevent such practices. In addition, anti-corruption procedures were tightened up throughout the company and, at least as importantly, there was a massive shift in the culture towards something that most of us believed already existed. The lesson was that organizational cultures need constant reinforcing which is why the company’s leadership, today, is forever hammering home the mantra that “Only clean business is good business”.
This wasn’t the only lesson in corporate governance I received at Siemens. Not long after I became CEO of Siemens UK, one of our employees was killed in an industrial accident. Over the years, I had received a lot of health and safety training, but nothing can prepare you for such a phone call. A colleague wouldn’t be going home that evening to his family; a local Siemens family would have to come to terms with the death of a loved one in an unnecessary, unforgivable, and dreadful accident; and it had happened on my watch. Naturally, I wanted to know why. Our health and safety practices were good, but could and should they be much better?
As a leadership team, we decided we could never do enough to prevent such a tragedy occurring again and proceeded to subject our health and safety culture to a root-and-branch overhaul: probably going overboard on risk assessment; discussing safety at every management meeting; and including a safety inspection in every senior leader’s site visit. It was a case of rather too much than too little. In our zeal, we even required everybody to use the handrails when going up or down the stairs and made it an absolute no-go to do so with a hot drink. This might sound extreme. Perhaps it was. However, we were setting a companywide safety culture, designed to save lives and prevent serious injury, and were mindful that what starts in the office ends, so to speak, halfway up a wind turbine. If it’s to become established, such a culture requires everyone to join in and, as so much in corporate life, to be led from the top.
Generally, the company leadership played ball but there was one time when it didn’t. Late one evening, when I thought no one was around, I was caught red-handed – on the stairs, hot drink in hand – and rightly called out for my hypocrisy by the colleague in question. A sincere apology followed and from that moment on, I never failed to use the rails, nor ever used the stairs while holding a hot drink. This behaviour became so engrained that, still today, I don’t even do it at home.
Positive health and safety cultures of this kind are far from limited to Siemens. I find them in practically every company I visit. Recently, in Timpson’s HQ, in Manchester, the very friendly receptionist told me they were responsible for my wellbeing during my visit. It is this approach that has helped companies, up and down the land, bring their staff through the pandemic safely. The business community didn’t wait to be told how to assess and limit the Covid risk in the workplace. It just got on with it, in the way that business does. It has been impressive to behold and, like so many business achievements, deserves more recognition than it has received.
However, my primary purpose in writing this piece is not to congratulate business but, rather, to place it on its guard and, if anything, ask it to do more. Why so? It’s because recent events have made it all too clear that standards of political integrity and governance are not what they were – indeed that we’re not simply on a slippery slope but have actually slid some way down it. To some, it will seem petty to complain about those Whitehall parties, or those PPE contracts awarded without due process, or those jobs for the boys – as petty as to call out a CEO’s cup of coffee that breached company regulations. It isn’t petty, though. These things matter in themselves; matter because they’re evidence of an underlying cultural problem at the heart of government; and matter because of the example they set the entire country, its business community included. A fish, as everyone knows, rots from the head down…
As business leaders, we owe it to our employees, to today’s and tomorrow’s business community, and to our country and its people, to maintain the standards that, on the whole, have served us so well for so long. Whatever government might do, we need to be clear that it’s not okay for business to lower its own standards of integrity and governance – not okay to breach covid and health and safety regulations; not okay to forget due process when accepting or awarding contracts; and not okay to distribute senior jobs on the basis of favouritism, rather than merit. Let’s do our best to ensure that business is a place of light and of reason; and, when leadership isn’t up to scratch, let’s call it out.
Juergen Maier is the former CEO of Siemens UK and co-founder of vocL which promotes responsible business voices in public debate
See www.vocl.uk on how to get involved.