‘What is the business case for being unsustainable?’
Professor David Grayson has been involved in social enterprise before it was even a thing, and over the last few decades he has acted as the conscience of business on a range of issues from accessibility and diversity to corporate social responsibility and sustainability.
In All In, he and his co-authors Chris Coulter and Mark Lee examine the practices of those companies leading the way in sustainability and challenge business leaders in every sector and at every scale to commit themselves to going ‘all in’ to ensure a long-term future.
In this conversation we discuss how three authors in three different time zones can create a shared vision and manage the work of researching and writing such a significant book in what turned out to be a surprisingly short time…
The All In site: https://allinbook.net/
David’s site: https://davidgrayson.net/
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Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. It’s a privilege to be here today with Professor David Grayson, who is a social entrepreneur, a speaker, a writer, and campaigner, Emeritus Professor of Corporate Responsibility at the Cranfield School of Management, Chair at the Institute of Business Ethics, and author – along with Chris Coulter and Mark Lee – of All In: The Future of Business Leadership. Welcome to the show David, it’s wonderful to have you here.
David Grayson: Thank you very much for having me.
Alison Jones: What I should’ve added there is that basically you have been the conscience of business over the last however many years, haven’t you? From championing disability and accessibility, corporate social responsibility, sustainability… just tell us a little bit about where that comes from? What’s your background and what was it that got you into this space?
David Grayson: Well, when I was eleven, I very nearly died. I had a very bad bone disease and my parents were told that if I did survive, I probably wouldn’t walk. Happily the surgeons were wrong on both counts, but I guess, if you’ve had that kind of life-changing experience, it does make you feel that you have to justify why you are still here. So, I’ve been interested in what was happening around me from a very early age. I was campaigning for our local community to stay in Derbyshire, they were doing a local government reform when I was a teenager and things like that, so that comes really quite naturally. I guess the whole question about the role that business can play in society, and the role that business should play in society, has been something that I’ve looked at from the end of the 1970s. I did a Master’s Degree in Brussels looking at how the European Union worked and my specialism was in how the European structural funds would need to change to be able to cope with all of the declining industries. Of course, then in the early 1980s, we had the decline of the steel and coal mining, and ship building, and so on, and I was based at that time in the Northeast of England. That was a region of the European Union which had all of those declining industries in spades. Rather than just think about it and study about it, I created a social enterprise, which is still going strong nearly 40 years later, Project North East, now PNE Group, and really it all developed from that.
Alison Jones: That must’ve been one of the earliest … Was it even called a social enterprise then, was that a thing?
David Grayson: So we didn’t have that kind of language. That came much, much later. It was a social enterprise because we were trying to mobilise resources from the public sector, but also from business and the third sector, and we were trying to come up with innovative solutions, particularly in the areas of youth employment and enterprise promotion, and helping people to create their own jobs. So, we very much had that kind of entrepreneurial philosophy, but for a social purpose.
Alison Jones: It’s always interesting to hear where people come from, to find that you had such a personal story at the beginning, I do think it’s interesting that … It’s a sad thing in a way I suppose, but that sense that it’s only when you’ve stared into the abyss, that you have a real sense of perspective on life.
David Grayson: I guess that’s really rather true.
Alison Jones: Here we are staring into the abyss as a planet. I guess, one of the things that you’re forcing people to do is actually engage with that and peer over the edge, and not just pretend everything is fine. Just tell a little bit about why the title, All In, and what is it really that you want this book to achieve?
David Grayson: So we called it ‘All In’ on the basis that we don’t think that businesses any longer can be either half hearted, or diffident about their commitment to sustainability, but they have to put everything into it. What the book is all about, is really what are the practical things that businesses across the world are already doing to go all in for sustainability, and what we think many more businesses need now to do.
Alison Jones: It made me laugh, there was a quote in the book where somebody was saying, “Are people still saying what is the business case for sustainability?” I can’t remember, one of the CEOs you were talking to said, “I’d love to see the business case for the opposite!”
David Grayson: It was Keith Weed, who was then the Chief Marketing Officer of Unilever, one of the companies that we feature a lot in All In. Yes, what is the business case for being unsustainable? Our whole argument is that, if you as a business leader, or as an entrepreneur, want to have at least a fighting chance of being able to continue into the indefinite future with your enterprise, then you do need to manage your social, and environmental, and economic impacts. That’s both about minimising the negative impacts and reducing the risks associated with those negative impacts, like pollution, or like treating your supply chain very badly, but even more importantly, looking for the opportunities for maximising the positive social, and environmental, and economic impacts you have whether that’s in terms of creating new products and services, or new business models for how you operate as a business. That’s very much been I suppose the running theme throughout my interests over the last 20 years around what responsibilities of modern business, but also the opportunities associated with it. Not just the negatives, but also how you accentuate the positives.
Alison Jones: Yes, I think that is an important point because it has so often been seen as a tick-box exercise, as a brake on profits almost, but with the circular economy stuff, actually there’s massive opportunity there, which in tandem with the downside of continuing to not think about it, makes this much more compelling for business. I think there’s also a sense in which increasingly we’re seeing business leaders as our only hope really, because none of the other types of traditional leaders that we’ve looked to for policy and so on, seem to be stepping up to the mark.
David Grayson: I don’t think they’re our only hope, and I’m always very cautious that we don’t over-emphasise the idea of business as the saviour, but I do think that business in today’s global connected society, has a hugely important role to play. Actually, if you think about it, global businesses are the ones which do have that reach in a way no other kind of institution does to the same extent. So, it’s not business on its own, it’s very much business collaboration with other parts of society, but it is business playing a much bigger role than it has in the past. That’s in its own interest, as well as in the interests of the rest of us.
Alison Jones: Yes, and actually you can extend that down to the individual can’t you? You made the point in the book that in a forum with political leaders businesses can stand and say, “Actually, we’re not going to stand for these particular policies because we know that we won’t get people to come and work for us if we don’t support diversity,” for example, which I think was the example you gave. There’s a real sense in which everyone has to play their parts. You’re right, they have that kind of international reach that of course national governments don’t, and international bodies tend to be hampered by a whole lot of other things. It is fascinating. Coming back to that point again about what you hope the book will achieve, it’s part of quite a broad spread of activity for you. You are a speaker, you are a campaigner, how does the book fit with all your other activities, the articles that you write, the workshops that you lead, the consultancy that you do… just tell me about sort of the whole piece and how the book particularly fits within that, the part it plays.
David Grayson: I think crucially of course, I’m just one of three authors for All In, and Chris and Mark and I had actually a very similar set of objectives, which was that we hoped by capturing all of the insights from 20 years’ worth of what’s known as the GlobeScan/SustainAbility Leaders Survey – which is an annual survey of experts in sustainability and businesses, in NGOs, in academia, in the media, and in the public sector as well – over those 20 years, looking at who the experts in sustainability across the world think of as the corporate leaders, how that has evolved over time, we realised, gave us some really important insights about how our understanding about what we mean by corporate sustainability has matured and gotten much more substantial. What we wanted to do, was to take the experiences of some of these global leaders that experts across the world had ranked over the years as being the top companies for sustainability, and we wanted in the words of one of our interviewees actually, Mike Berry from Marks and Spencer, to take these, if you like, gold medallists, which are still only in the tens or hundreds at most, and how we get many more tens of thousands of silver medallists, in Mike’s words, who would take lots of the insights that we had collated in the book, and apply them in their own businesses. Our purpose above all, in writing All In, and spending the last year going out and about to try and socialise the book, what we’re saying in the book, our purpose as a team of authors is to get many more businesses to follow what leading companies are now doing as a matter of course.
Alison Jones: I’m guessing actually that can go right down to micro companies can’t it?
David Grayson: Very much so, and was inevitably, the examples in the book are of the Wal-marts, and the Patagonias, and the Ikeas, and the Nikes, and so on, because those are well-known global businesses that experts across the world in large numbers, recognise, but these ideas are just as relevant to an entrepreneur who’s thinking today about, “How do I start a business that can be around for the long term,” whether that’s setting up as a B Corp, benefit corporation, or whether it’s being a responsible entrepreneur in some other way.
Alison Jones: Yes, which is really heartening I think, because yes, your impact in micro business might be tiny, but there’s a hell of a lot of micro businesses, so actually the potential impact, if you get them All In, is very substantial. I want to talk a little bit about the writing process actually as well, David. As you said, you’re one of three authors there, I mean, three authors: that’s quite a bit of juggling isn’t it? How did that actually work in practice?
David Grayson: This was the first time that Chris and Mark and I had worked together. Chris and Mark had worked together on things before, but I hadn’t worked with them both, and they are based respectively, Chris in Toronto, Mark in Oakland, in the Bay Area in California, and I’m obviously based here in London. So three countries, three time zones, and in each case, we all had busy day jobs as well.
So, it wasn’t easy, but we got together very early in the process for a face to face, very intensive day. We spent the day just talking to each other about what were our personal objectives in writing the book. What did the book have to do for our respective organisations, if we were all going to get kind of the permission to spend a lot of time working on the book? What was the tone of voice that we saw for our book, what was the kind of mentality behind it, so glass half full, or glass half empty kind of thing, and very much who were our prototype readers, who we most wanted to influence? In particular, what did we want them to think and feel and do as readers, having read All In?
That day, very intensive day and evening, lots and lots of laughter actually. Anyone listening would’ve thought, “Gosh, are they going crazy already, and they haven’t even started the writing of the book.” Not even started the interviews and things at that point, but lots of laughter too, which was a good sign that we were also going to have a sense of perspective, a sense of balance of all this. I think, having got that kind of common understanding was so crucial in the following year as we went about researching and then writing the book.
Alison Jones: That is fantastic. So few authors take the time to do that, even themselves. I suppose when you’re writing with other people there’s more of a prompt to do it, but it’s a great exercise to do just for yourself isn’t it?
David Grayson: It certainly is. Then, of course, we identified who were our dream list of people that we would like to interview, and we focused particularly on those people who were running the companies who were ranked at the top of the GlobeScan/SustainAbility Leaders Survey, at the time, when those companies were ranked the top, because over the 20 years, obviously the top leaders evolved substantially. In the early days it was companies like 3M, and Dow, and BP, and so on, then it went through companies like Wal-Mart and so on. Then more recently companies like Unilever, by an increasingly high margin, and then Patagonia and Ikea and so on. One company throughout the 20 years, Interface, the business started by the late, great Ray Anderson, who of course himself wrote a wonderful book in the space.
Then we set about interviewing the leaders of those companies at the time that they were leaders. What was fascinating in today’s global connected society was that we never did any of the interviews face to face, and very often Mark would be on the call in California, Chris in Toronto, and I was on a call either in London, or I spent part of my year in Catalonia, in Northern Spain. We would be interviewing somebody who might be in New Deli, or in Bombay, et cetera. With all the interesting logistics of time zone differences and so on. We recorded all of those calls and transcribed them, so we had all that material.
When we came back together a few months later for the first of three very intensive face-to-face sessions, to really crystallise what was going to be the structure of the book and the key messages, the key arguments, and where we were going to use different examples and different quotes and so on. So, it became a very organic process.
Alison Jones: That’s fascinating. In a sense, you sat down and thrashed out the purpose of the book in both directions. The purpose for you as authors, but also the purpose you wanted the book to have for the reader you identified, but then rather than planning out the table of contents or anything, you went and did the research, you got the raw material, I know you had the scan findings, but you went and got the raw material from those interviews and then, and only then, you came back together and said, “Well what does this show us and how do we structure the book?” Is that right?
David Grayson: Exactly, that’s right.
Alison Jones: That’s so interesting. How did you work with that massive material then?
David Grayson: So we had three days in November 2017, in London. Mark in particular is a great white board person, so you take him apart from his white board when he’s in a really creative mode, you’re in difficulties…
Alison Jones: I love a good white board, I’m with him.
David Grayson: We would be mapping out structures and only when we were comfortable about the structure – and the book is based around what we call our All In Leadership Framework, which is Purpose, Plan, Culture, Collaboration, and Advocacy, that’s the heart of what we think a business now needs if it is going to go All In for sustainability – then, we tossed backwards and forwards what we thought were the interesting examples to bring in at different points in the book. Oh yes, there was that really great quote from Paul Pullman, or there was that really interesting quote from that entrepreneur from Nigeria, or whatever. So, we really crafted it as a team. It wasn’t that we were going off hermetically sealed and writing different sections of the book and then trying to glue it all together, it was very much a team effort all the way through.
Alison Jones: What’s really … Well there’s lots of really interesting stuff about that actually. I could dig into that all day, but one of the things that really strikes me, is how there are different modes when you’re writing a book. You have your sort of hunting-gathering mode, and you can do that remotely, and you can do it almost individually, and then there’s a sort of synthesising, and that creating the narrative framework, the model that you’re using, that had to be done together, and probably had to be done in person. I can’t imagine you could’ve done that so successfully on a three way call, is that your understanding?
David Grayson: Actually, you know, the white board, and who’s going to get the coffees next, that kind of sort of human interaction to really bed it all down, when it came to the actual writing, and I’m not sure if I should mention this, because our editors might be listening and they may not be quite so impressed, but the actual writing was a very, very short period of time. So, we really kind of compressed the writing time, and we did actually, every chapter went through at least seven redrafts during a period of, dare I mention it, six and a half weeks or so, from the first word on the computer, to the final draft going to the publisher.
Alison Jones: That’s brilliant. Actually I thought you were going to tell me something much juicer than that. I’m a bit disappointed. You’ve almost got writing sprints there haven’t you?
David Grayson: We have. It was actually also Christmas and New Years as well, so, I think that all of us were a bit remiss with family over that particular holiday. We were busy rewriting different sections and so on.
Alison Jones: Do you think that speed was a factor of having done all the groundwork, so you were just so clear about what needed to be said, or was it the fact that you’re all experienced writers, or a combination of all of the above?
David Grayson: No, I think part of it was that we had agreed with sustainable brands that we would be able to launch the book on the main stage at the main Global Sustainable Brands Conference in Vancouver, which we knew was June 4. So, we were really working back from that June 4, hard copies in Vancouver, when is the absolute last date that we can reasonable deliver the manuscript to the publisher and expect that they will fulfil their side of the bargain and deliver the actual physical copies to Vancouver on time?
Alison Jones: The power of the deadline, it’s all about the deadline isn’t it?
David Grayson: Absolutely. I do think, for me, this wasn’t the first book, for both Chris and Mark, it was the first book, but both obviously experienced writers in other contexts, reports, and white papers, and things like that. I think it was only possible for us to do that intense writing phase because we had done all of the preparation and we did have that structure very clear by the time we came to the actual detailed writing. We had all of the transcripts available to us via Google Docs and things, so we then, knowing that we had deadline of being able to wave the copies around in Vancouver, we did actually need to have a sprint to complete the text.
Alison Jones: So fuelled by coffee and adrenaline, basically, this book?
David Grayson: Very much so. Very much so.
Alison Jones: I think you might have stumbled on a bit of a secret alchemy of book writing there actually. I love that. Now, I always ask people for their best tip for a first time business book author, apart from the coffee and the adrenaline, what would you say to someone who’s listening and perhaps is in the process of trying to pull together their first book?
David Grayson: I think being really, really clear about what is your purpose in writing this book, and who ideally are you writing this book for? Try and be quite specific about the readers that you really hope will read your business book, and then, being as clear as you possibly can, what do you want your readers to think, and to feel, and then to do, having read the book?
Alison Jones: I think that’s absolutely brilliant advice. Obviously the transcript will be available at ExtraordinaryBusinessBooks.com I’m going to highlight that bit because it’s so simple, but actually so profound and so powerful, because I think a lot of people come to writing from a place of knowledge and they know so much about their subject, but when you force yourself to think about who is the person who’s reading it, where are they now, and what change do I want them to be able to make having read it? That makes your editorial decisions for you really, doesn’t it?
David Grayson: It certainly is a massive aid in decision making, I think.
Alison Jones: Yes. Brilliant. Also, is there a book, apart from All In, obviously, is there a business book that you would recommend that anybody who listens to the podcast should read, that talks about the issues in leadership and in business today?
David Grayson: So I am an inveterate reader, and I’m doing this conversation from my study at home in central London, and downstairs there’s a library with several thousand books, including many, many, business books. So, this has been a really, really hard decision. I’d be hopeless at doing desert island-
Alison Jones: You’d drown with your chest of books wouldn’t you?
David Grayson: I think I would desperately sort of want to use the book shelves as my life raft or something. I think it has to be, and I’ve got it down off the bookshelf, a wonderful book by Charles Handy, who is one of my great, great heroes in life generally. This particular book, although I’ve read every one of Charles’ books and I loved The Empty Raincoat and The Age of Unreason, and so on, but this one he wrote in 2006, and it’s called Myself and Other More Important Matters. That title, first of all, is vintage Charles. Anyone who knows him knows, Myself and Other More Important Matters, so wonderfully self deprecating. It’s part memoir, but it’s also a kind of summation of lots and lots of things that he has learned over the course of an incredibly rich and full life.
I think the wonderful thing about Charles Handy is that you have people like the Sunday Times, and the FT, and so on, raving about his books, but my mum, who was a primary school teacher, bless her, for 40 years up in the Sheffield area of North Derbyshire, and knew nothing about business, had never been involved in business at all, but she used to read the Charles Handy books that I used to pass on to her, and she just loved his style, whenever he was doing the thought for the day on Radio 4 and so on, would be really absorbed by what he had to say. I think what Charles does so well, is to combine some really important insights, with the great gift of being a wonderful story teller. So, I think that the particular book, Myself and Other More Important Matters, does kind of get you thinking about what is your own purpose in life, what matters really, really to you, and so on. It’s interlaced with some wonderful stories.
Alison Jones: Fantastic. I haven’t read it, I don’t even know of it I’m ashamed to say. So thank you, that’s a brilliant recommendation. I shall go and seek it out. Thank you. Now, David, if people want to find out more about you, more about All In, more about all the stuffs that you do, where could they go?
David Grayson: First of all, for All In, we have a microsite, which is www.AllInBook.net, because this is all about networking as well, and then for me personally, I’m on Twitter and people say I’m reasonably opinionated on Twitter, and I tweet about public affairs, and I tweet particularly about corporate responsibility and sustainability, but also about my volunteering work as the Chair of the Charity Counts UK and now also the Chair of Institute of Business Ethics.
Alison Jones: You’re probably too modest to mention it, but haven’t you been named as Tweeter to Follow for anything to do with sustainability?
David Grayson: I think the Guardian at some point were desperately looking for a tenth name or something, so I was on the list. In terms of, I do have a personal website, which is DavidGrayson.net, and I try to post links to blogs and things in the kind of sort of media hub there. Also, obviously hopefully you’ll be able to link to this podcast.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Absolutely. So of course, as I say, the transcript and all those things will be put up on the show notes at ExtraodinaryBusinessBooks.com. It’s going to be one of those transcripts that will bear several re-readings I think. David thank you so much for your time today, that was fascinating. There’s about 15 different areas that I could’ve talked to you about all day. I love those interviews. Thank you so much.
David Grayson: Thank you.