Business writing,  Humanising business,  Leadership,  Personal Reflections,  Purpose,  Storytelling

How’s business?

One of the questions that I most hated when each of my children was very little was, 

“Is (s)he a good baby?” 

Such a sweet and well intentioned question, really meaning something along the lines of,

“Are you alright? Or has the arrival of this small person so turned your world around that you no longer know which way is up?” 

It was, I think now, really just a way of letting me know I was seen, that the boundaries of me hadn’t dissolved completely in the fog of milk and sleeplessness that so marks this period.

But I never knew how to answer it. I didn’t have a baseline to measure from. I hadn’t defined any success criteria. Good? Good at what? 

Good in the sense of being biddable and sleeping and eating on a perfectly predictable schedule, which is, I think, mostly what was meant? No – terrible, on all counts. 

Good at just generally being a baby? Sleeping, eating, pooing, griping, giggling? Yes, seems to be pretty much all over it. 

Or good at so capturing my entire heart and mind that I could stare for hours at the downie hair of her eyebrows and the line of her cheek? Yes, outstandingly good at that. The very best. 

I’m similarly stumped now when people ask my whether my book is “doing well”. 

Once again, it’s such a kind and generous question. It means you’ve remembered I’ve written one, that you’re curious, that you’re hoping (I think!) that I’m happy with how things are shaping up.

The problem, yet again, is that I don’t know how to answer the question, because I didn’t define any desired outcome at the outset. Do you mean, 

“Is it selling well?”?

I’m not sure. I don’t really know what good sales figures are, and I don’t check. Occasionally I get gently nagging emails from my editor encouraging me to do a little more by way of profile raising. I’m not rich yet.

Or do you mean more, am I proud of it? Has it made me happy? In which case yes, kinda, most days. I’m glad to have had the chance to gather my thoughts in a coherent order between two covers, and share them. My day is absolutely made when someone lets me know they’ve read it and found something useful somewhere in there. 

Perhaps I’ve been to too many barbecues and drinks evenings recently, but I’ve been wondering the same about that old, ubiquitous, “How’s business?” question. Which I think, for all our talk of triple or quadruple bottom lines, is still basically a question about money. At the moment in the UK, it’s also a question about Brexit and market outlook, but it amounts to the same thing really.

I do it myself. Someone asks how business is, and I find myself talking about market sentiment, the likely pipeline of work, the markets that are booming and those that are struggling. It’s such an age-old, deep-rooted capitalist assumption. It’s surely almost impossible to shift? Profit and turnover – our go-to success criteria for good business. Our good babies.

But, for example, in Arup at the moment, we’re engaged in a deep discussion about what it means to truly flourish, individually and collectively, as a group of people with unique gifts and skills and perspectives but a common purpose and shared values. 

What would truly make ‘good business’ for us? In short, living our purpose to shape a better world, in line with our unwavering commitment to creative, holistic solutions and exceptional quality … delivered in a humane way … each of us playing to our unique strengths and flourishing as a result. And making enough money along the way to afford us the freedom to continue creating beautiful things and finding great solutions to hard problems.

When we talk about all that stuff, we are all-in. We mean it. And we make a pretty reasonable fist of living it day to day. We, along with many other truly purpose-led and values-driven companies, can testify to the power of seeing day-to-day actions and big decisions being determined by purpose and values. 

But perhaps this is a higher test still. What would it take to ingrain that rounded view so deeply in the hearts and minds and on the tongues of everyone – me included – that we default to talking about that as our first instinct in response to that standard “How’s business?” question? 

I think, basically, a favourite triumvirate of mine – time, role models and stories. We need to see, and be, the leaders out there talking as a matter of routine about our businesses in terms of our people, our sustainability, our impact, our purpose, and our profit. We need to seek, and give, airtime for stories that are about more than quarterly results. We need to challenge ourselves, and the person asking the question – be they a top business analyst or a casual acquaintance clutching a glass of warm chardonnay at a family barbecue – to go beyond the numbers and talk about the stuff that actually makes the difference.

Babies, books and businesses should all bring joy, and carry with them the promise of making the world a better place. Doesn’t get much ‘gooder’ than that.