In a corporate climate rife with green-washing, political correctness, and technocratic regulatory jargon: now more than ever is the time for business leaders to step up and lead by example through transparency, accountability, and regulatory competence.
So argued Dame Moya Greene, speaking with an urgency in the airy halls of The Slate - a conference centre at the University of Warwick - on the 9th of November 2021. Warwick Economics Summit was privileged to welcome Greene as the second WES Presents standalone keynote speaker of the season, addressing a diverse student audience on the subject of regulatory accountability.
The great divide: the making of corporate and regulatory rules is out of touch with implementation
Over the past 12 months, Greene has been writing and thinking extensively about the “big disjuncture between what is written about organisational decision-making, and the expectations that we place on decision-makers”. Her exploration of the chasm between (a) how exactly rules are made in large multinational organisations, and (b) how in practice these rules are applied, drew into question the very heart of leadership, and what it really means to achieve operational and regulatory success.
If anyone is qualified to explore these seminal questions, surely it is Greene. Across her career she has led teams - and even multinational organisations - in both the private and public sectors and on both sides of the Atlantic. It was after her 1996 leadership of a significant restructuring of the National Transportation system, in the Canadian federal civil service, that she first moved into the private sector. Formerly the CEO of the Canada Post from 2005, Greene was also CEO of the Royal Mail from 2010, when the enterprise was successfully listed on the London Stock Exchange.
Throughout these diverse leadership roles, Greene recounted to the Warwick Economics Summit’s audience, her view of accountability in regulatory leadership and corporate decision-making has changed dramatically.
Accountability in leadership: It's all about the day-to-day
Originally, when asked “what aspect of accountability is the most important?”, Greene would have argued that “it was the employee-side”. Later, she “thought it was the environment-side.” Now, however, Greene believes that “the biggest risks are on the ground. It’s the operational side.” She argued that the day-to-day operation of firms is the number one most important aspect of corporate accountability. Even more important was Greene’s warning that those leaders who “are not in touch with what’s happening on the ground, [have] a risk lens that is opaque”.
“We all need to pay more attention to what’s happening on the ground”
With these powerful words, Greene relayed one of the most pressing roadblocks that prevents corporate management from regulating organisations - and making decisions - effectively. Leaders at the pinnacle of their firms are too often and too easily falling out of touch with their employees; losing sight of the day-to-day temperature of those who are working ‘on the ground’.
Remedially, Greene implored corporate leaders: “you have to be out and about, and you have to be willing to spend a certain amount of your CEO time and week in the field, talking to people, taking your own temperature”.
Speaking experientially, and drawing on her own prolific history of leading organisations, Greene said that both (a) direct interaction and temperature checks with the wider extent of your company, as well as (b) indirect, vicarious temperature checks through the delegation of responsibility to managers, are effective strategies for senior business leaders. Greene further emphasised that one or both of the two - direct and indirect temperature checks - are necessary to ensure that leaders remain in touch with their employees and business issues - lest their decision-making capacities be rendered ineffectual.
Speaking up: Leaders must stop shying away from awkward conversations
Moreover, speaking now to the issues of corporate green-washing and excessive political correctness in the workplace, Greene identified a second major issue preventing leaders and regulators from making effective decisions and maintaining accountability. This turned out to be the general reluctance of people in the business world, simply put, to point fingers.
Organisational accountability, for Greene, resides on two pillars.
The first is individual - rather than vague and generalised collective - accountability. Greene argued that everyone - from small-time managers to boards of review who investigate major business failures - should be freer and more inclined to ascribe specific, targeted responsibility when things go wrong. “This is the really hard edge of accountability - the personal quality of it. Nobody wants to say to another person, ‘that was just not good enough’.” But we need to do it. Greene argued that we need to get better at constructively calling out those individuals who should have (but did not) take action to prevent an issue - or, who simply should have been performing to a higher standard. Not to discourage, damn, or humiliate them - but to highlight areas for targeted improvement, and to progress through individualised change.
“It’s not the school that’s sub-standard. It’s people who are there, meant to be performing the mission of this school, that at some level or another are not good enough”
The second, related pillar of organisational accountability that Greene mentioned was the need to set clearer expectations for all employees - from entry-level interns to senior managers. This is necessary to enable individuals to effectively aim for and meet a well-defined standard of work. “It’s just such fraught territory to say, here is the calibre of performance that we need to ask of you. I think we’re not getting better at that, I think we’re getting worse”. Speaking to the growing tide of political correctness, Greene argued that recent trends have moved us further away from the kind of frank honesty that is needed to promote and protect corporate accountability.
Nobody is safe: Accountability issues persist even among regulators themselves
Finally, Greene cautioned that these growing issues in the realm of accountability and decision-making in leadership are not confined to for-profit organisations, saying “you don’t have to search very far to find that the rulemakers sometimes have decision-making issues of their own”. Here, Greene presented an important warning that it is not only private and even public sector organisations who suffer from accountability failures, but also the wealth of governing and regulatory bodies who are meant to set the standards of accountability and conduct for everyone else.
“There are everyday failures happening, we just don’t hear about them… they’re happening at all levels in all organisations across all sectors”
It was then, as Greene argued that accountability failures take place even in regulatory bodies themselves, that a brief discussion emerged of an interesting regulatory paradox. A paradox in which increased regulation actually raises the number of accountability failures: “the more and more frequently we change the rules of accountability and transparency, the greater the glare of scrutiny… oddly enough, the greater is the number of accountability failures”.
On the one hand, these arguments (and particularly this paradox) leaves a very thin tightrope on which regulatory and business leaders can walk. On the other, however, Greene’s blueprint of heightened individual responsibility and honesty when identifying issues and areas for improvement - as well as greater interaction between leaders and their employees “on the ground” - offers a real and meaningful source of hope amid the growing tide of accountability crises. It is with those hope that Dame Moya Greene closed her talk, after some insightful questions from the Warwick Economics Summit’s audience, and with this hope that we leave you now.
Summary written by Ingrid Bahnemann
Talk and quotes delivered by Dame Moya Greene on 9th November, 2021