From the dominant issues of the day (the General Election, Brexit and climate change) to everyday business challenges (skills, diversity and technology), the agenda for the CBI’s latest Annual Conference aimed to provide practical guidance and inspiration to business leaders and young people alike.
Never before had the conference taken place in a General Election period. And with TV debates set only to feature Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, it was the only place to hear from all three main national party leaders – the Liberal Democrats’ Jo Swinson included – about what the results of the polling could mean specifically for business.
Throughout the day they’d be joined by world class speakers ranging from internet pioneer Martha Lane-Fox to the Most Reverend Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Christiana Figueres, the former Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The building blocks for the future
But before the headline acts took to the stage, meaty discussions over breakfast set the tone for the day, with three insight seminars on three equally important topics: how to support digital transformation in your business, how to tackle pay gaps and how to deliver the transition to the low-carbon economy.
Also setting the scene for the day ahead were the CBI’s keynote speakers – President John Allan and Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn – who opened the main proceedings with a clear agenda, driven by member concerns and interests.
- For the government to work in partnership with business to create long-term solutions to long-term problems, such as climate change and skills
- For urgent action to make the UK business environment more competitive, including addressing business rates, immigration policy, R&D spend, and infrastructure
- To champion good and responsible business
- To secure a Brexit deal that protects the economy.
Carolyn emphasised that the upcoming election is one of the most important in our lifetime. “We stand on the threshold of a new decade, with the chance for all of us to shape what comes next,” she said.
“I’m delighted that we’ll hear from all three national party leaders later today. It says something very important that they are all here. I’m often asked – who is the party of business. My answer is that we need them all to be the party of business. And that’s because we share some incredibly important goals.”
The politicians’ perspective
This call for partnership was picked up by each of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders in turn as they made their election pitches to business.
As expected, they all explained their party’s solution to the ongoing Brexit uncertainty, which they recognised was hurting business and needed swift resolution. But they were equally determined to highlight domestic priorities designed to encourage growth.
Investment in infrastructure led the charge, but all three leaders dwelt on the importance of education and skills and technology. Corbyn and Swinson also spoke at length on tackling climate change – something Carolyn had referred to as the breakthrough issue of the past 12 months, despite the distraction of Brexit.
The climate change challenge
In a keynote speech, the UN’s Christiana Figueres praised the UK’s unity on the importance of tackling climate change – both between the parties and with business.
But she also sounded a note of caution. To meet our net-zero target in 2050, the UK needs to halve its emissions by 2030. Both business and government need to accelerate progress – and by hosting COP26 in Glasgow next year, the UK has a unique opportunity to showcase its leadership and the transformation already underway in the real economy.
“Every single analysis confirms that it is not easy – but it is entirely possible,” she said. “What it does require is ingenuity, resourcefulness, and above all gritty determination – to understand that this is the moment in history in which we have been given this opportunity to write the future and create a much better world.”
Proving business as a force for good
Throughout the day, as much as political and business speakers recognised the role of business in tackling environmental or societal challenges, everyone was united in the belief that if business wants a real partnership with government, it has to step up its efforts.
A panel discussion was devoted to the importance of balancing profit with purpose.
Peter Lacy, Senior Managing Director of Accenture Strategy, spoke of the ethical and moral imperative for businesses to get involved and be part of the solution around issues such as climate change – but he added it was a source of competitive advantage to do so.
The same can be said for working to solve social inequality at large, and diversity within business, the panellists agreed. And success depended on firms wanting to make a difference, rather than being forced to by government.
“Rules encourage tokenism and box-ticking,” said the Most Reverend Justin Welby. “Winning over hearts and minds drives change.”
Building trust in technology
Ethics and gender returned to the fore in a session on seizing opportunities through today’s technology – with Baroness Lane-Fox and Microsoft UK Chief Executive Cindy Rose on stage flying the flag for diversity in an industry that’s not as open as it should be.
And while there was plenty of focus on the opportunities to be gained by adopting technology, and the best ways to do so, equal emphasis was placed on the challenges. Top among those was skills – and the need to upskill workers as much as train a new generation.
As Alastair Cox, Chief Executive at Hays, said: “Dealing with the consequences of all that change is our responsibility because it’s happening on our watch.”
The people priority
Skills also dominated a session on driving up productivity in the UK. And alongside trust in business, the importance of focusing on people was the biggest takeaway for business leaders in the room.
Even a keynote from Ivan Menezes, Chief Executive of Diageo, on how to maintain global investment in the UK put developing and expanding the talent pool at the heart of his recipe for success.
“Human capital is our most precious commodity,” he said. “We have a responsibility and an incentive to invest in it for the long term.”
The issue of diversity and inclusion was never far from speakers’ scripts or audience questions – but a debate about workplace wellbeing, and in particular mental health, shone a spotlight on what more businesses can do to support their staff.
The session – featuring business leaders from Skanska, Eversheds and Bupa – was moderated by Alastair Campbell, who was brutally honest about his own mental health problems. He thanked the CBI for putting the issue of mental health in the workplace on the political agenda – and he urged employers to continue leading the way.
For all the importance of the political messages of the day – and (for the first time in this General Election) hearing what party leaders believed business can deliver for the economy – there was a sense that firms shouldn’t just wait for the politics to play out.
Business has the ability to take control – whether on diversity and inclusion, new technology, or climate change – and there was plenty of advice available at the conference to help them do so.