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Book review: ‘The Activist Leader – A new mindset for doing business’ by Jon Miller and Lucy Parker

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Published: 16 June 2023

The authors make an important contribution to the often heated debate about the role of business in society and advocate a new kind of leadership with talent as its heart, writes Christopher Walker.

‘The Activist Leader – A new mindset for doing business’ by Jon Miller and Lucy Parker

In brief

  • Faced with multiple crises, businesses need a new cadre of activist leaders.
  • The authors identify five key types and make practical suggestions as to how they should drive change.
  • Companies are vital – on climate just “one hundred companies have been the source of 71% of the entire world’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988”.
  • The authors make an important contribution to the “live and often heated” debate about the role of business in society.

Jon Miller and Lucy Parker work together as business coaches helping companies “get to grips with their role in society”. Both have had long distinguished careers. Miller founded ‘Open for Business’, while at one point Parker led the UK prime minister’s task force on talent and enterprise.

Talent is very much to the fore in this book, as the authors advocate “a new kind of leadership in business”.

Talent is the key

The authors believe “the urgency with which that’s needed is plain for everyone to see”. They argue that urgency comes from the multiple crises challenging the world (and businesses) –  on climate, diversity, waste, water, food, health, inequality, and exclude exclusion. Some of these would seem to be overlapping to me – diversity, inequality and exclusion are perhaps three words for the same idea – but you get the point.

Talented leaders must emerge like superheroes to save the planet as “activist leaders”, hence the title. There’s a slightly Nietzschean touch in what follows., but then the authors need to convince business big wigs.

They have perhaps made this harder for themselves by using the term “activist” in the first place, since as they admit “people in business approach the term ‘activism’ with caution. It comes loaded with connotations of implacability or unreasonableness”.

Mark Schneider CEO of Nestlé says he’s “an activist yes, a zealot not”. A lot of big names are quoted in this book, from JP Morgan’s CEO Jamie Dimon, to Larry Fink of BlackRock.

The authors argue successful leaders in today’s world you “are expected to deliver societal value alongside financial value. Not one at the expense of the other. And doing that takes a new mindset, the ability to think like an activist about the role your business plays in the world”.

But most business leaders still don’t think like this, because they have grown up through their careers in “a different paradigm”. The authors write: “They are confident and capable in delivering financial value. That’s a problem for the world and a problem for business too.”

Becoming an activist leader

The authors identify five different activist leader types: the fixer – who applies practical and organisation skills to an issue in a direct, hands-on, way; the mobiliser – mobilising available resources; the campaigner – advocating for change; the pathfinder – “they find a way or make one”; and finally, the bridge-builder who brings people together.

And they also identify the key behaviours and actions necessary to become an activist leader, most of which are self-evident: focus, perspective, pivot, ambition, disruption, core (take action in the business), system (system-wide change), advocacy, and momentum.

Anyone who can achieve all this really is a superhero.

Why business matters

In short, because they need to. Apparently “on climate just one hundred companies have been the source of 71% of the entire world’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988″. On waste, “just four major companies are responsible for six million tonnes of plastic waste every year”. And also because “companies are engines of execution” that can push forward “real change on societal issues”.

The authors make an important contribution to the live and often heated debate about the role of business in society, which “forms a noisy surround sound in the business world today”.

They marshal several studies supporting their argument. “A strong ESG score translates into a 9% lower cost of capital,” according to Ashish Lodh’s 2020 piece for MSCI. Effective ESG execution can “help combat rising operating expenses with the potential to affect operating profits by as much as 60%,” according to McKinsey. 65% of employees “want to work for an organisation with a strong social conscience,” according to Mary Bakers’ 2022 study. And 54% of consumers have “reduced or stopped purchasing from organisations they believe have acted inappropriately,” as stated in an EY report in 2021.

These last two arguments are particularly powerful because “these days every business is a talent business, so the ‘Great Resignation’ has put employee relationships at top of the agenda for leadership teams. Loss of talent is the number one threat facing business”.

Talent really is the key to this book. So the last word belongs to one superwoman: Mellody Hobson who is chair of  Starbucks and one of the most senior black women in USbusiness. “Corporate America wants partial credit for showing their work, but getting the wrong answer. The idea that trying is enough.” As she says “that is not good enough”. We need change.

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