Tuesday 20 August 2019

Channel 'inner millennial' to restore corporate trust

INM chairman Leslie Buckley, Niall FitzGerald, INM chief executive Michael Doorly and Dermot Desmond at the INM Brexit Breakfast event in Trinity College
INM chairman Leslie Buckley, Niall FitzGerald, INM chief executive Michael Doorly and Dermot Desmond at the INM Brexit Breakfast event in Trinity College
Dearbhail McDonald

Dearbhail McDonald

Every generation blames the one before. So goes the opening line of 'The Living Years' by Mike + the Mechanics.

The late 1980s teary ballad charts a son's regret over an unresolved row with his dead dad and speaks to the frustrations of younger generations not living up to our elders' expectations.

I was reminded of the song last Friday afternoon when Sinead McSweeney, MD of Twitter Ireland, mounted a robust defence of millennials. In a refreshing break from the endless management angst over this much derided subset of the workforce, McSweeney - who is also the tech giant's vice-president of public policy and communications for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) - raised concerns that millennials are killing themselves in the race to get ahead.

Millennials, those born between 1980 and 2000 - I missed the moniker by a whisker - are often dismissed by older generations as power hungry, selfie-wielding, smashed avocado-munching do-gooders who are obsessed with reality TV and are bone lazy into the bargain.

But they are also the generation that is dealing with the fallout of the global financial crisis and unprecedented technological changes that are making the workforce more uncertain, while championing social responsibility in corporations that pay lip service to it.

Speaking at the Institute of Directors annual Spring Lunch, McSweeney said she is increasingly worried and concerned about the mental health and well-being of millennials and said that the definition of success needs to evolve.

The Cork-born tech boss, who trained as a barrister in her own salad days, said she had been struck in recent months by the "level of swirl" around the challenges for today's leaders and managers in managing millennials. "You know that saying 'you'll kill yourself trying to do all that' - well, on a serious note, they [millennials] are killing themselves," said McSweeney.

"There is a huge issue around mental health and wellbeing and the levels of pressure that individuals are putting on themselves and the anxiety that is prone to surface in their lives and in their work."

McSweeney said leaders and managers have a duty to ensure they do not add to the pressures felt by millennials and help them realise it is okay to slow down from time to time. "It's okay to take a moment to enjoy the achievements that you have, that you don't have to rush straight to the next level or achievement," she said.

On the one hand, said McSweeney, millennials prefer less hierarchical organisations - but are still burdened with the previous generations' measurements of success such as promotion and advancement. They also have a sense of an accelerated timeline and for reaching those achievements, added McSweeney, explaining that many millennials desire to be at the top of their game early and sometimes have the difficulty to see the need to 'do the time' and to learn the lessons to get there. But McSweeney also cautioned against excessive criticism of younger workers because of their desire to help others in their communities and through their work. "The quest for impact, a footprint bigger than your foot, and finding work that provides it is increasingly recognised as key to thriving and happy workplaces. A heightened sense of community impact and helping others, these are values from which we could all benefit."

We could indeed.

THE penalty for corporations failing to uphold values and serve the staff and citizens in the communities in which they operate was the theme of a searing call to arms last Thursday night by former Unilever boss Niall FitzGerald.

It was the much-feted businessman's third such call to arms in one day.

FitzGerald spent last Thursday morning at an INM Brexit breakfast led by An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, berating the business community for not speaking out on "the reckless dishonesty and ignorance of so-called political leaders" in Britain whom, FitzGerald claimed, had undermined a great nation and its partners, notable its closest neighbour Ireland.

FitzGerald, who memorably described hard Brexiteer and current Tory party all-star Jacob Rees-Mogg as "the honorary member for the 17th century", - I'll dine out on that one for a while - laid out a credible path for mitigating the worst effects of Brexit before popping out to studio 1 in Donnybrook for an interview with RTE's Sean O'Rourke.

Then it was off to the Merrion Hotel that evening where FitzGerald was honoured by the Principals Club, a gathering of international C-suite executives.

Leaving Brexit behind, FitzGerald outlined his vision of 'Principles for Principals' at a time when trust in business has been lost - at a huge cost to businesses their consumers and their communities.

How do we get business operating in a more consistently beneficial question? asked FitzGerald, directing his trademark directness towards the financial sector.

FitzGerald, who previously served on the board of Bank of Ireland, regaled diners with tales of a dinner party game he once held with a select group of friends, all of whom had served as bank directors. FitzGerald asked those friends to consider what box they would place themselves in - whether they had been incompetent in not seeing what was coming, or complicit in bringing the crisis to Ireland.

There was no third box. And with the game, he admitted, he may have lost a few friends.

What was refreshing about FitzGerald's latest contribution to the leadership debate in Ireland was his dismissal of regulation alone as the answer to ensuring good standards in business. Regulation, he said, is often hard to work in practice if it ignores the most important point of principle - namely doing the right thing.

"Leaders should not be let off the hook for the reckless behaviour in which they indulged," he said to a room of hugely influential leaders. "When you have regulation, the temptation is to look at the rules and resolve to work - just - within them. It leads to a philosophy of 'what can we get away with?' But just because something is within the rules, doesn't make it the right thing to do."

One wonders had up to 15 banks deployed such a rationale would we have ended up with a €1bn tracker mortgage scandal in the wake of the global financial crisis?

Last Friday Ulster Bank announced that it set aside €192m last year to cope with the cost of what it said was 'legacy issues' including compensation and refunds for customers in relation to the tracker mortgages scandal. It was the last of some 15 banks that had to be dragged kicking and screaming into admitting the scale of their mistreatment of borrowers.

In many cases, the banks were probably well within their legal rights, but does that make it right? And, legal niceties aside, where would the corporate trust barometer lie had the banks simply done what was right by their customers?

For FitzGerald, regulation is no substitute for individual responsibility. And without mutual respect and trust, businesses and banks cannot thrive.

Maybe channelling our inner millennial and embarking on a genuine quest for social impact, isn't such a bad idea for restoring corporate trust after all.

Sunday Indo Business

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