How aware are you of the impact certain words have and how they affect decision-making and judgement? 

In our next series of blogs we’re looking at some common terms in organisational life and how their impact affects our thinking and behaviour in ways which we may not be aware of, but which have far-reaching consequences. Today we’re starting at the macro level.

What springs to mind when someone mentions the word “corporate“ to you?

We see someone in a suit and big, impersonal offices.

The reason I ask is that at a marketing workshop, Anne and I were recently invited to place ourselves as GBL on a grid representing the coaching landscape and how companies like us present themselves. The opposing positions on the y axis were corporate and human, whereas the x axis went from performance to collaboration and sharing. As we earnestly placed a cross in the upper right quadrant (human and for collaboration and sharing – wouldn’t you?), avoiding the bottom left quadrant (corporate and for performance), we suddenly thought, HANG ON A MINUTE!

Despite thoughts of the big, impersonal offices, we’re for all of these being in the same quadrant: the corporate world being human and fulfilling for a wide range of stakeholders – through sharing and collaboration, for a start.

Values mismatch?

The exercise also surfaced a conversation I had with a fellow coach, who said he no longer wanted to coach people in the corporate world as their values didn’t match his own. So what “corporate” meant to him lead to an unwillingness to engage with a corporate organisation.

The dictionary definition of corporate is “relating to a large body” from the Latin corpus, meaning body. I wonder where and when the positive connotations of being part of a large body (belonging, common purpose, shared values) were hijacked by their opposites (disconnection, competing goals and splintered values)?

If we think of corporates as inhumane, self-interested places to work, who would want to work there?

As I reflect on this I wonder if this disconnection has something to do with the narrow definition of what that body is there to serve – people, in simple terms. When beneficiaries are reduced to, say, a handful of ‘shareholders’, the scope for connection is correspondingly narrow. On the other hand, when beneficiaries (or more commonplace, stakeholders) are more widely defined to include fellow employees, customers, communities and the planet, then you can feel that connection expanding, not only in numbers, but in significance and contribution too. 

If we think of corporates as inhumane, self-interested places to work, who would want to work there? And who would survive once they got there – only the jungle-fit? 

Killing your hires

Following the financial crash in 2008 when a CEO remarked that one good outcome had been to get rid of dead wood, he was asked whether his organisation hired dead wood or  hired live wood and killed it!

This common view, of cut-throat corporate environments, repel candidates who are ambitious for more than developing their capacity for survival.

We all have an interest in changing this perception (and indeed, reality) from within and without because corporate power has never been stronger, for good or ill, and it needs to attract and keep good people. In addition, research shows that socially and environmentally responsible organisations are reaping benefits that outstrip those with a narrow profit focus.

David Stevens, CEO of Admiral, voted the Best Big Company to work for in 2019 remarks: “When shareholders ask what is the secret of our success (the share price has roughly increased by a factor of four in 10 years), it’s very difficult to give a one-sentence answer, but I would certainly put culture at the top of the list.”

Some of the specifics he mentions regarding culture are promoting people from within who reflect and embody the values of the organisation. Fun is part of the landscape as are charity fund-raisers. “One advantage of people enjoying being engaged is we have really good retention. “explains, Stevens, “It’s hard for someone to steal our best people.”

This is not people without profit or even people and profit but profit because of focus on people. People-centred, purpose-led organisations are leading the way to a more human 21st century. 

It pays to be human

We have met and worked with many principled, hard-working people in corporates, with the purpose and drive to put the ‘human’ back into the frame: meaning, fun, connection, values at work, joined up thinking. This means not only the scope of their purpose, but also the tone and substance of their leadership. 

The good news is that it pays to be human and to make that big body stand for something to which others want to belong. 

As ‘human corporate partners’ to our clients, we’d like to reclaim the word ‘corporate’ and help others to redefine what it means in their workplaces – towards extraordinary possibilities. 

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