If you think the business case alone is going to win over the bosses, think again. Business is not just about numbers, argues Mallen Baker

It’s received wisdom that corporate responsibility is all about the business case. You can’t hope to get sustainable action within your company unless you can prove it’s going to work with hard, indisputable numbers.

And lots of people duly spend time crafting the business case, only to find that it fails to persuade. It’s frustrating.

When that happens, the chances are that the role of the business case is being fundamentally misunderstood.

Firstly, very few chief executives or other senior decision makers would really decide to take action based on a business case if they came to the table in a sceptical frame of mind.

Think about it. Why is so much business networking based around semi-social settings, such as dinners or entertainments? Because any good salesman knows that you have to create a positive relationship of trust. If people like you, they’re more likely to want to buy from you. And if they want to buy from you, they will seek a business case that makes it work. Because they already wanted to do it.

So the business case becomes the tool that shows how something can be made to work for the business. It is not the tool that helps you choose to do the thing in the first place.

When the new chief executive joins a successful company, the business case reasons behind the company’s strategy don’t change. But very often (almost always, in fact), the chief executive will want to create a new direction.

Although the facts haven’t changed, the leader’s likes and dislikes, habits and instincts have. They bring with them what worked for them before. And they will try to find ways to make the numbers add up for the new business as well.

Art of seduction

So you have to deal with your decision makers as people. They need to be seduced. They have to be influenced by people they respect and want to emulate. They have to see something that will make them think about it in a new way – that will touch their heart not just their head.

And then, only then, the business case becomes a powerful and essential tool.

Indeed, you have then to guard against the other danger: that they may “get religion” and want to do stuff without really thinking it through from the point of view of the business.

So the business case is no longer the tool you use to win somebody over. The business case is the tool that demonstrates you can do what they now want to do and maximise the benefit for the company.

One head of corporate responsibility remarked to me recently that she was starting to get greater senior level buy-in as she got older in her role. And the main reason was that young bucks who joined the firm at the same time she did were now moving into positions of authority.

Note – she didn’t say that as she gained experience she was getting better at framing a business case (although I daresay that’s true). The thing that was making the difference was that she now had solid peer relationships with the people who were attaining that senior status. So these were people who had a relationship already. They treated her as an equal and gave respect.

The business case may be just about numbers, but there are strategies you can adopt for building relationships and credibility. You just have to be clear about how important that is for your job success.

It’s the kind of thing that I’m sure, in the UK, the newly emerging Institute for Corporate Responsibility (ICR) will provide resources for once it is launched.

And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t become a part of standard corporate responsibility training. After all, companies train their sales people on this stuff.

I remember once being invited to join a session run by one of the top four accountancy firms for their staff on “working the room” – how to go in to apparently social networking events with a plan to reach the targets you want and achieve the prerequisite to a next step, permission to get in touch. This permission was never obtained by talking numbers, by the way.

Selling sustainability must be even more important than selling accounting services, it seems to me, with all due respect to that distinguished profession. Being clear about which tool works for which situation is a valuable starting point.

Mallen Baker is managing director of Daisywheel Interactive and a contributing editor to Ethical Corporation.

business strategy  Mallen Baker  sustainable business 

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