Akey skill of leadership is "finding one's voice" -- articulating the ideas, values, passions, and aspirations that can inspire commitment. One of the clearest, sometimes loudest, voices in corporate leadership is Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop International.
Since opening her first skin-care shop in 1976 she has built one of the world's most recognized retail brands and created a niche for naturally based products. Recognized for its independently audited social and environmental practices, the company sources many of its ingredients directly from producers in developing countries, creating sustainable local economies. It has campaigned for human rights, fought the animal testing of cosmetics, and contributed money and personnel to nongovernmental organizations in Kosovo, Romania, Brazil, and elsewhere. Roddick spoke recently with Leader to Leader about the role of the business leader as social advocate.
Leader to Leader: The mission of The Body Shop is, in part, the pursuit of social and environment change. You seem to make almost no distinction between a business and a social institution. Is that a realistic model for others?
Anita Roddick: Yes, it is. What's interesting is that nonprofit organizations are having to act in a much more appropriate business way -- to be more focused, more strategic. And many businesses are adopting almost a nonprofit agenda, in terms of defining their mission. They are looking at not just the enhancement of profits but at how the business is perceived in the local community.
The big question that none of us in business ever want to ask ourselves -- because I think we'd probably all close down -- is, does the growth of the business presuppose the destruction of the planet? Is the continuing need for growth -- the way we're measured in terms of success -- a philosophy that will destroy the environment? Does our financial growth automatically mean that we will alienate humanity in every way?
No, that doesn't need to happen, but growth in itself is a real problem. We don't have a culture that says, "What about growth of the human spirit rather than the growth of profits." And how to redefine profits? The two agendas, business and social, can work together. There is a lot of examples of how. But the bigger question of growth is a hard one, because anyone who has spent a lot of time traveling and seeing the actions of businesses around the world has a real disquiet about the drive for endless growth.
L2L: You're saying business leaders should look beyond the narrow confines of the business itself. Isn't that asking them to do something that they were not hired to do?
AR: You see, the narrow confines are getting narrower and narrower. When you see the huge growth of international money flows -- the way billions of dollars can cross borders via computer with no restrictions and certainly no bloody taxes -- the notion of profit is there for relatively few people. Mostly it doesn't go down into the community or the broad base of employees.
I'm asking businesses to seriously look at some old business practitioners -- like the Quakers, who were incredibly successful business people, cared about their community, never paid themselves more than they needed to, and saw business as a community of peoples and the protection of those peoples. They measured success in a different way. I think there's a resurgence of that way of thinking as an antidote for the belief that profits are everything.
L2L: Well, how do you measure success?
AR: People are always thinking in business there's only one measurement, which is financial. What about measuring success by the joy in the workplace? Or by meeting environmental and social standards? These measures are out there: people are working on them. But most business leaders are afraid to consider them.
My measure of success is how influential and inspirational I can be, how continually progressive I manage to be. But at the same time, I feel there is a real tyranny in measurements. You see that so clearly in business. It's no longer about honorable trade, the buying and selling of a product. Instead it's become a financial science, and its language is necessarily confining. So when you challenge the language of business -- by bringing in other ways to measure success, for example -- you're challenging the very foundation of business. It drives economists nuts.
L2L: Still, business leaders are accountable for financial performance. What are the benefits to the business of social engagement?
AR: It's to do with the development of the human spirit. When anything comes from the heart -- any energy, any action -- it comes with a passion that is unstoppable. My staff do not go home dreaming of moisture creams. They go home absolutely riveted when they come back from a project in Bosnia or Kosovo. The experience has changed their values. When you have a process of education that goes on in a company -- not educating to sell but a bigger education -- people don't want to leave you.
There's also something to providing a safe area where you can practice things that you're not taught at school: advocacy, activism. There's nothing more joyous in retailing -- which is a freaking dull industry, mostly populated by women, by the way -- than to engage in the community, to do volunteerism on company time. So where's the benefit? There's a passion that persuades, that binds both customers and employees to you, that sparks innovation. And in our case, in the business of skin and hair care, we don't advertise, but we garner an enormous amount of attention on some of our actions, whether liked or not liked. We're not an anonymous company because we stand for something -- and we are claiming a territory where the competition won't follow.
L2L: Is part of your job to create an identity for yourself and your organization?
AR: We never sat down and said, "How can we be different?" A social commitment comes out of a belief in yourself, because as an entrepreneur what you're doing is putting out a thumbprint of who you are. Being the rabble-rouser that I am, I want my thumbprint on the canvas of The Body Shop. But at the same time, the values I hold on to go far beyond the 'me'.
The leader has to have a moral agenda. If the leader is only saying we want to be the biggest or the most profitable company in the world, forget it. When you do that, there's no leadership. There's nothing more to aspire to. But if your aspirations come from the values of your culture or church or temple or mosque, you have something beyond your own livelihood creation. You're coming to work not as a nine-to-five sort of death but a nine-to-five sort of living. Leaders have to lay out a concept and see what their amazing group of people can do. It's not just about compassion, it's about meaningful accomplishment.
The leader has to have a
moral agenda, or there's no leadership.
L2L: You lead both within the organization and in community. Is there a difference? How do you bridge the two?
AR: In the organization, it doesn't have to be any more complicated than motivation. And to do that, you have to live and breathe with the troops, not just the top guys. My greatest hope in the organization is to reach a level where I can absolutely inspire young people, mostly female, to have a voice. Their voice is trained to be timid. From day one, young girls in our society are never told they're remarkable. The minute they can open their eyes they've got ads telling them to get a facelift or diet. My role is helping them to reclaim their freedom to say no, to be heard, to make sure that in anything they do -- whether it's in their relationships, in love, in work and the community -- they have the right to be heard. They give away their power so often. I try to make the connection between the work of the organization and the larger community.
L2L: Recently your business has been under pressure - with lower profits and lower sales in established stores. Do you lead differently during tough times? How do you establish priorities within the organization, or between the business and the community, when the business is tested?
AR: We've had real dilemmas in the past three years because we've been going through the difficult and necessary process of completely restructuring the business. There was so much media misinterpretation -- actually, we made a profit of £27 million ($40 million) in 1999!
But it was never our commitment to social responsibility that was a cause of a decline in the price/earnings ratio. Principles and profits are not in conflict, and if profits dip, it's because you're not running your business smartly enough, or your products don't hold the same fascination, or you've got a distribution system that's strangling you.
It all comes down to communication. We knew we had to regionalize our operation; it's ludicrous to manufacture everything from one site in the United Kingdom. We want to protect workers, especially blue-collar workers. But for the first time we had to face redundancies. The process had to be part of who we are. So we talked to everybody in the organization. Everybody knew what was happening. For people who could not continue with the organization, or who didn't want to, we offered retraining packages to the entire family -- it might have been a parent or spouse who wanted to take job training. We set up an Entrepreneur's Club; we provided money to seed people's own ventures, to work with the community, or to come back as a consultant to the company. And we worked with everybody in the community -- healthcare workers, social workers, police, psychologists -- so everyone understood our process.
That we haven't been deflected even more seriously in our business is an amazement to me. What has kept us going from all the regions of the world where we're having to reorganize is our common set of values -- our human rights campaigning, our social justice. That's the glue that has kept us together.
Our set of values is the glue that has kept us together.
L2L: How do you communicate with over 5,000 employees in over 1,700 stores around the world, and with all those you want to reach outside the company?
AR: I'm very good on communications. Communication is a delivery system. I can take any vehicle -- Internet, newsletter, whatever -- and address whatever issue is important. We have a series of booklets coming out of my office called Full Voice, which talks about our community trade or the unattainable ideals promoted by the cosmetics industry. I've written a weekly column for the Independent on Sunday, a national newspaper in the UK. I travel consistently to the shops -- yesterday I was in five. We've used audiocassettes, monthly videos. It's all about the championing of products and the values of the company.
L2L: The Body Shop is in name and in fact an international organization operating in 48 countries. But you take a dim view of multinational businesses. How are you different?
AR: I take a really dim view, yes. The difference is, we are not multinational, we are multi-local. Multi-local is when people, families or couples, set up their own entrepreneurial business. They're rooted in the community, and we end up wholesaling to them. There's no central power within The Body Shop International. There may be moral influence but there's no power, there's no lobbying behind the scenes with the World Trade Organization.
The multinational corporations are really the owners of the planet. They control government behavior, they impose their obsession with deregulation, their obsession with trading within just the top G-7 countries. They are probably the biggest human rights abusers -- in terms of employment practices, their collusion with the armies in Burma or Nigeria, the list is endless. One of the great mysteries to me is why the media haven't glommed onto these abuses. Businesses need to be accountable, and when necessary, penalized. We all have to clean up our mess. And we have to be honest, transparent in our business practices. That's why it's exciting to see the growth of the vigilante consumer -- people who are not targeting governments but targeting and boycotting and pressuring corporations. Nothing's going to happen unless there's consumer outrage. And that is rooted in education.
The multinational corporations
are really the owners of the planet.
L2L: How do you keep the issues that are important to you relevant to others in the organization, and to customers?
AR: It's hard to get The Body Shop as excited as I am by a lot of these things. And new people come in and they're so respectful of what I've achieved. But you know something? They don't quite get it. It's a problem of language -- they talk about consumers and I talk about customers; they talk about the brand and I talk about The Body Shop. I'm consistently trying to find more humane or more intimate language.
Is this what consumers want? I don't give a whit what the consumers want. You find what is right and then you take it and shape in such a wonderful way that people will rally to it. For me, the things I always loved were product development, style, image -- in a way, marketing, but we never had a marketing department for 17 years. We won lots of awards for marketing but we never really knew what it was. Now we have young kids running product development. The guardians at the gateposts have changed. But I can influence morally, I can influence by design. And I can influence by passion.
L2L: What are you doing to develop that next generation of leaders within the company?
AR: One of the worst things is what I've not done. I'm so protective of the stuff I've done in the past, like going out to pre-industrial communities and coming back with product ideas, that I should be mentoring others to do that. But I have this profound belief that it's got to come from the heart. You've got to have the will to create, got to have a real love of curiosity. I tend to measure our employees by how many questions they ask. I go to every shop and ask, "where are you from, where are your parents from?"
Earlier today a wonderful, charming woman from Nicaragua served me at my hotel. I went to the manager and said, "I'm going to tell you something. You've got the most wonderful employees." She looked at me like I'd just dropped down from another planet because she expected to be harangued. There's such a poverty of praise in organizations. So another aspect of leadership is the praise, if it's meaningful. In other words, we perpetuate our vision and values by living them.
L2L: You speak about "managing by falling apart at the seams." What does that mean?
AR: Organizations are consistently falling apart at the seams -- emotionally and every other way. There are so many crises of management, of everyday life, of change. Every business has words for it, and they are all economic words. Try bringing in words like "grace" and "awe" and "wonderment" -- poetic words that could describe the actions of people in a company.
Maybe it's the optimism of the entrepreneur or the rebel, but leaders find a seam of meaning. Sometimes that seam is lost, through the maelstrom of organizational and personal change; the creative organization should never be a comfortable place anyway. It's a matter of managing that tension and remaining hopeful and creative.
The creative organization should never be comfortable.
L2L: What would you like to leave as your legacy?
AR: I hope that when the epitaphs are being written, they will say that this was one of the first companies to try to change the language and the behavior of business, that brought a social engagement to everything it did, and shouted this from the rooftops.If you're passionate about certain things -- as I am -- you speak out. There's a great quote: "If I'd wanted to be quiet I would have opened a library." So I want to be heard. George Bernard Shaw, when he talked about the nature of his life, said it was like holding onto a flame, seeing how strong that flame can burn, and then passing it on. That was a wonderful message for me.
Copyright © 2000 by Anita Roddick. Reprinted with permission from Leader to Leader
, a publication of the Leader to Leader Institute and Jossey-Bass.
Roddick, Anita "Leader as Social Advocate: Building the Business by Building Community" Leader to Leader. 17 (Summer 2000): 20-25.
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