Bobby Godsell. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
Bobby Godsell says smart executives know real wealth creation in 21st century needs fullest commitment of brains, hearts and brawn from all employees. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

IN DEMOCRACIES, especially in times of deep change, a successful society depends as much on the quality of its citizens as it does on that of its leaders. This includes a particular kind of citizen: the company, or corporate, citizen.

Citizens are the ultimate architects of social order. The company as corporate citizen is central to the creation of wealth and the profitable production of goods and services.

Companies also provide the most important source of social reality for employees. Employed adults spend more of their waking lives at work than pretty much anywhere else. It is at work that they fashion so many of their important relationships, giving content to both their hopes and fears.

How can the company-as-citizen become a backbone of a SA that provides opportunity and hope to all its people?

There are three immediate ways in which company life can become part of building that future that is set out so poetically in the vision statement of the National Development Plan.

The first needs a fuller economic partnership in the workplace, where companies should see employees truly treated as partners. The unionisation of black workers that started in the mid-1970s marked the beginning of the end of the apartheid project, and unions have given workers dignity, better wages and working conditions, and protective rights.

But in the world of the 21st century we need an empowerment of working people that is broader and deeper than this. Workers need to become co-architects of each company’s plan and purpose. For this to happen they need to know what these plans are, have the chance to help shape these plans and be regularly updated on the progress in achieving the plan’s goals. They must also be able to join in identifying problems and solutions when the plan goes awry.

This means a new dialogue between managers and employees, far more regular than that of collective bargaining. German workers meet by institutional arrangement to discuss their firm’s progress at least every quarter. SA’s 1996 Labour Relations Act makes provision for companies to have workplace forums, yet this is the least utilised section of this law.

But smart executives know that real wealth creation in this century needs the fullest commitment of brains, hearts and brawn from all employees. Unless the overall company plan is a regular, inclusive subject of discussion between managers and all workers, neither understanding nor true commitment to its success is possible.

Such a company-centred debate should also explore new patterns of employment conditions and rewards, with such things as all-inclusive profit sharing giving employees a direct interest in overall business success.

Companies must also work to liberate employees from impossible debt, something that South Africans are drowning in. The National Credit Regulator says that of the 17-million "credit active consumers" (people with at least one form of contractual debt obligation), 12-million are "credit impaired" — at least two months in arrears of their contractual obligations.

Since at least the mid-1980s, consumers have been encouraged to take on more and more debt. One result was the economic dislocation that started in 2008, with origins in the inability of home owners, credit card users and the holders of student loans to meet their debt commitments.

An employee drowning in debt cannot be a productive, creative and responsive member of the work team. Companies should therefore conduct audits of employee indebtedness and assist workers to use the National Credit Act’s powerful mechanisms to plan a road back to financial sustainability.

Of course, overindebtedness is also a behavioural problem that needs behavioural solutions, but these can be found only when the harsh reality of indebtedness is faced.

Companies can also help to fix education one school at a time, realising that most of their employees are also parents. SA has about 30,000 public schools, catering for almost all young South Africans, although there is much needed to be done to improve the quality of teaching.

All companies can assist the schools used by the children of their own employees. By linking parents together through the workplace, they can build effective school governing bodies, helping to ensure that parents are the effective third leg of the school, together with teachers and learners.

Through structured employee volunteering programmes they can address many aspects of school life; from physical facilities to teaching and extramural activities.

Working with employees’ children, companies can also build bridges between schools and economic activity, allowing students to become useful, economically active citizens of adult society.

These examples of how companies can become the citizen architects of a much better SA require them to leave society’s spectator benches and to enter the public arena. For it is in the arena, and only there, that a good society is built and maintained.

• Godsell is chairman of Business Leadership SA. This is a shortened version of his address to the recent FirstRand-CAFSA "Beyond Painting Classrooms" conference on employee volunteering programmes.