Before his career as a HEC Montréal professor , Robert Dutton worked at RONA for 35 years, 20 of which were at the head of the company as its president. His experience led him to create a conference, then a course on ethics and entrepreneurship. We spoke to him about the key to maintaining an ethically responsible business.
Photo: courtesy of Robert Dutton
"It's a subject I love talking about," states the former RONA boss. "I wanted to share my entrepreneurial experience with young people. I first created a conference for the Beauce Entrepreneurship School (École d’Entrepreneuship de Beauce) called LEED, or Leader Entrepreneur Éthique et Durable (Ethical and Sustainable Entrepreneurial Leader), a take on the acronym of the international certification Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design."
A man of action and conviction, Robert Dutton didn't want to retire leisurely on the golf course. "I managed a company that went public," he says. "I met with investors, bankers and shareholders. Never did anyone ask me questions about the staff, about the people. They were only concerned with the logistics, the equipment, and the real estate."
This led Mr. Dutton to realize the importance of ethics and values from a sustainable human perspective. "If I hadn't been able to count on all those people inside the company, we would have never made it so far," he insists. Robert Dutton's journey is both remarkable and, in an era where everything moves so fast, surprisingly stable.
"I asked myself a lot about sustainability in business. Why do we stay with an organization? What makes employees attached to a business? At RONA, for example, there was not only great employee loyalty to the banner, but also a real attraction to the brand by those looking for work."
The leader wanted to understand. He poured over the subject, studied the question and made a simple and strong conclusion: the indicator of mobility is the result of the consistency between the discourse of a company and its values as well as the way it conveys them and its choices of action.
"At RONA, I always said that we don't just sell nails, we’re a part of something bigger," explains the new professor. "Each employee contributes to the bigger picture. Each person is indissoluble from everything and collaborates with the company's values."
Also, if a company demonstrates authenticity in its actions and consistency in its discourse, the chances are better that the people will want to follow it. "The employees are proud to accompany a leader who is loyal to his or her values," continues Mr. Dutton. "We expect that this has to be someone with vision, of course, but also a leader who doesn't see his employees as only resources. They are above all humans."
The ethics of the leaders must therefore reflect the values of the company. In fact, their actions and decisions speak louder than any company mission or document.
The "career hardware man", as he likes to refer to himself, thinks that by creating internal social responsibility programs, for example, by giving workers the opportunity to get involved on an environmental level, can allow businesses to add meaning to their employees lives and to the company as well. "A company that's more fair and human also gives meaning to the organization," he points out.
Robert Dutton is convinced that the new ethical and sustainable entrepreneurial leaders of tomorrow won't be just creators of wealth and prosperity. Surely they will continue to do those things but to the benefit of their clients, employees and the whole community in which they do business.
"I'm impressed to see the concerns of young people today in terms of ethical questions, of the value they give to their actions and to the social dimension of their journey," admits the professor. "It's encouraging. Young people have a true sense of responsibility for society."
The former RONA leader hopes that the future entrepreneurs that he teaches are capable of believing in their dreams and that they can mobilize people around them and their projects.
"People aren't asking us to be perfect. They want us to be real and genuine. They want us to demonstrate that we intend to change," this is something he likes to remind the students who he guides down the path of entrepreneurship.
"I'm confident in the future. Young people have values. They know how to put them into practice," concludes Robert Dutton, with a hope-filled smile.
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