Martha Lane Fox co-founded Europe’s largest travel and leisure website lastminute.com with Brent Hoberman in 1998, they took it public in 2000 and sold it in 2005. Martha was appointed a crossbench peer in the House of Lords in March 2013. She is currently chair of Go On UK, a coalition of public and private sector partners that are helping millions more people and organisations online. In March 2014 she was appointed Chancellor of the Open University. Martha co- founded and chairs LuckyVoice, revolutionising the karaoke industry. She chairs MakieLab and Founders Forum for Good. She is a Non-Executive Director at Marks & Spencer and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. In 2007 Martha founded her own charitable foundation Antigone.org.uk and also serves as a Patron of AbilityNet, Reprieve, Camfed and Just for Kids Law. In 2013 Martha was awarded a CBE.
[Bio reprinted with permission from Baroness Lane Fox’s blog with gratitude.]
1. What is the most important ethical lesson you have learned (either personally or professionally)?
I think a key lesson is that we vastly overcomplicate things. Being a good person is the same whether in business or with friends, whether in the boardroom or the dining room. It’s about consistent values such as honesty and directness. It may sound simplistic, but this straightforward approach takes away a lot of complexity and targets what really matters. Making a fortune has never been an endgame for me. I love difficult, knotty problems – feeling my brain on fire. Surprising as it may sound, sometimes I feel I can get the most done in government. The important focus is on trying to change things for the better not just commercial objectives. I believe in government, especially in support and welfare networks for people in need and in trying to level the playing field. Digital is a critical tool toward this end. Government also has huge levers to shift behaviors and modify the fabric of society.
2. What is the most shocking corporate ethics matter you have seen in the news recently? Non-profit sector? Why?
I find things less shocking than I used to, but banks still seem to be behaving unethically. It isn’t every single bank or every aspect of banks or of any single bank. I think it is in part due to an unpleasant phenomenon of gender imbalance and aggressive and excessive interest in wealth creation coupled with excessive risk-taking. I would have thought that the massive scale of the fallout from the financial crisis would have stomped out much of this. I would have expected more new business models in response to the crisis that don’t seem to have emerged.
I am shocked about climate change. For example, many of the deniers are bright, well-respected individuals that pick away at the science rather than doing something about it. Corporate behavior such as the BP oil spill and over-fishing also reflects the short-termism. The Blue Marine Foundation that my partner Chris Gorell Barnes co-founded (and serves as a trustee) has done wonderful work to address solutions to the marine crisis through public-private partnerships. They have made a highly acclaimed film on over fishing called The End of the Line.
Politicians…in general they are ever the same. I do think the Scottish referendum is a critical ethics message. We should think long and hard about how they achieved such a voter turnout (campaigning, the subject and message, leadership…) and how to address the result.
Finally, I am somewhat shocked that some of the young technology billionaires are not more focused on social challenges. It’s not enough to support other entrepreneurs through angel investing or venture capital, or to pursue the next hundred million.
3. What do you see as the opportunities for the corporate sector and non-profit sector to collaborate in raising the bar in ethical matters?
Collaboration is 100% a must. When we [Brent Hoberman and I] co-founded Lastminute.com, I thought about doing good as something on the side. I was involved with a charity called Reprieve, and we would hold board meetings at the Lastminute.com office. Now if we were to found a company, I’m sure Brent would agree that we would integrate a sense of social justice into the heart of the company from the beginning. The world has shifted. It’s the noise in the ether, particularly around sustainability. There are more examples than ever before such as Unilever or Danone’s work with farmers in Africa.
The technology phenomenon exerts great pressure to change in this positive direction. It forces organizations to open up and be more transparent. Social media pressure prevents hiding. Global leaders’ messages trickle down. Companies must be more reactive and customer-focused because customers and the public are demanding this, again in part through social media and consumer choice. Marks and Spencer [where Baroness Lane Fox sits on the board] leads in embedding ethical behavior in the business model.
The positive consequences are tangible. Recently I read about 12 states in the US legislating a living wage, and the productivity increase was astonishing.
4. What are the most effective strategies for mitigating risk of unethical behavior in your organization?
At M&S we have something called Plan A (a combination of ethical oversight and environmental sustainability) that is very embedded. Previously it was a corporate social responsibility department, but now there is a separate Plan A department, Plan A efforts around the company, and a separate sustainability board that I serve on that reports directly to the main board. The critical feature is the reporting lines: the Plan A board reports to the main board (including the audit committee). This means that the oversight for Plan A is by the full board and by the audit committee. Sustainability and ethics is considered a risk that is closely followed just like financial and other corporate risks. Also, all of the executive team members have sustainability as a review point in their performance evaluations that links to compensation.
In the Cabinet Office, the government digital service department (Government Digital Service or GDS, established as a result of Baroness Lane Fox’s report “Directgov 2010 and beyond: revolution not evolution”]) has a strong series of values around how GDS will behave. There are core principles, starting with listening to the user and improving negotiation techniques to protect citizens from waste. These principles are embedded in that department, as well as in how GDS relates to other departments. Start with the user is the starting point!
5. What are your strategies for ensuring ethical policies and standards flow down through all levels of the organizing and to all stakeholders?
There are a lot of different elements. Most importantly, it comes from the top. You have to have a sort of positive mini-dictator who establishes clear guidelines and moral leadership. At M&S, culture goes back to the early days when the company looked after staff and customers, and then moved on to the supply chain. It protects the brand and helps reach other company targets. People really care. We have measurable feedback from customers that the ethical business model matters; people want to work at M&S because of its ethical culture; and partners must sign up to stringent ethical commitments in order to become a M&S partner.
6. Are there areas you think regulation should be more extensive in regulating corporate ethics? Non-profit sector ethics?
Regulation can help with some things, especially transparency and accountability. For example, government could force companies to publish more data. I’m generally a fan of regulation without it being too cumbersome, but it’s only one piece of ethical oversight. But government needs to start with itself too. The Government Digital Service I referred to earlier does a great job of that. They put everything out there – the good, the not so good, and the ugly.
7. Should culture be an important contextual element in ethics analysis? What is unique about the ethical culture and environment in your country that should be taken into consideration?
There’s no way around it. There are degrees of ethical culture and leadership or a spectrum ranging from actively seeking to enforce the highest standards of ethical behavior to barely complying with law. It all comes down to leadership.
8. Do you think globally applicable ethics principles and practices are possible? Desirable?
Yes I do think globally applicable ethical standards are possible. There are nuances, but fundamentals of human rights exist. There are irrefutably right ways to behave like prohibiting child labor and addressing environmental responsibility.
9. What is the biggest mistake people make in making decisions around ethical issues?
Dodging responsibility. Not putting ethics on the table, perhaps because the immediate gain (financial or other) is not obvious. But this kind of short-termism fails. You can’t escape it. I will never forget a story from when I was much younger. My father is a professor at New College, Oxford. I always admired the huge long wooden tables in a sort of dining area. I remember asking one of the porters or persons in charge of maintaining them how they looked after these beautiful tables year after year. The answer was that hundreds of years ago when the tables were first installed a forest was planted nearby the College so that there would always be enough wood to replace them. Are we doing that today – giving more than we take?
[Note: I answered that Baroness Lane Fox certainly seemed to be with her tireless efforts for digital access and skills.]
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