Alison Platt, Independent Non-Executive Director, Tesco

Health of a Company Hinges on Health of a Society

Having worked across the healthcare, travel, consumer goods and insurance sectors, I’m acutely aware that a lack of awareness of community discourse can be fatal for businesses. Engaging with communities allows organizations to understand them and serve them appropriately and effectively. But in 2020, the challenges facing our world demand that businesses take the concept of service well beyond the customer experience. This anchors one of my goals in concert with the board of Tesco, the UK-based food retailer, where I’ve served as Non-executive Director since 2014. Founded in 1919, Tesco’s 400,000 employees have long held a single purpose: “To serve customers a little better every day.” That’s noble—and vital to Tesco’s success. However, a wonderful shopping experience at Tesco isn’t valuable if people leave the store feeling disconnected from larger society and powerless to change it.  

Those who serve on corporate boards have a unique opportunity to mold a better society through their roles in governance. We have already witnessed a seismic shift in governance to embrace the concept of sustainability. This expanded governance role can be interpreted narrowly—focusing what you might call “run of the mill” corporate responsibility—or it can be seen as a call for the corporation to address issues of vital importance to the social compact that undergirds a free, fair, compassionate and productive society.

Further, independent directors have special license to make sure that corporate management sees things as they are, not as they wish they were. A senior leadership team worth its salt values this dimension of oversight and makes sure each stakeholder group has a direct channel to the corporate board of directors.  

To that end, several years ago, Tesco launched “Every Voice Matters” (EVM) a state-of-the-art opinion survey program. The initial goal was to listen intensely to employees and give voice to their thoughts on how Tesco could become a better company. Tesco then expanded EVM to customers, and now, is expanding it further, to guide what the company can do to make people’s communities more cohesive and their lives more meaningful.  

We as a board, are listening, and working with Tesco leadership to take action. For example, through EVM, communities from around the UK told us that Tesco isn’t a company they necessarily connect with, despite the large, positive economic impact it has in the region. This finding was somewhat of a  wake-up call to Tesco leadership, and we’ve subsequently learned that communities want to feel that Tesco isn’t a faceless large company but is fully in tune with local concerns and issues, especially as the face of commerce changes and people face a strained safety net of services. As a result, numerous employees, have stepped up to become “Community Champions,” actively engaging with other community leaders and finding ways to make our villages, towns and cities better places to live.  

I view the insights gained through channels like EVM to be as critical in my directorship as the other financial and key performance indicators that guide corporate governance. I also encourage those who have leading corporate governance roles to take a deep look at their roles and how their companies can engage more intensely in healing our wounded societies.  

From my earliest days welcoming people on board international flights, to my work in building and turnaround of major UK companies, I’ve seen that people want to align with organisations that align with them. Board directors have, and must respond to, an outsized role in making sure that companies account for this power of alignment and help build a society that works for this generation, and all of them to come.