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What Does Transparency Mean to Your Company?

This blog is part of our Inspired Ethonomics series. Pierre is an Investor, Director and VP of Marketing for Guayaki Yerba Mate and will be profiling businesses with a triple-bottom line agenda.

Ben & Jerry's was started 25 years ago by two ordinary guys, transformed into an iconic company, and led the way to the current phenomenon we call corporate social responsibility. Its path-breaking practices include everything from paying living wages to restraining the differential between pay for the CEO and the lowest level employee—it's set at a multiple of seven at Ben & Jerry's. Think about that today. The average multiple at other companies is 700! Disclosure, I am the chair of the board of Ben & Jerry's so I am proud of what the company does even though there is much more to do.

Walt Freese has a long history with Ben & Jerry's and other socially responsible companies. As we discussed the interview for this blog, our conversation revolved around the idea of transparency. Why does it matter? To whom? And to what end? Where does transparency do the most good? Where does the lack of transparency do the most harm? The video captures Walt's passion on the importance of transparency in dealing with his colleagues at Ben & Jerry's.

What do you think? And what else do you think you might want to hear from Walt?

Pierre_GuayakiPierre Ferrari is an investor, director and VP of Marketing for Guayakí Yerba Mate, a company that combines scaled reforestation in South America, the reparation of many small communities and the marketing of Guayakí Yerba Mate. From 1995 on, Pierre focused his energies on a variety of social issues ranging from International Relief and Development, Conscientious Commerce, and Emerging Markets. He is president of "Hot Fudge" social venture capital fund, a community development venture capital fund whose purpose is to use venture capital to create jobs, entrepreneurial capacity and wealth that advance the livelihoods and wealth opportunities of low-income people and the economies of distressed communities.

Pierre holds a Masters degree in Economics from The University of Cambridge and a MBA from Harvard Business School. He has two sons, married to Kimberly, in awe of two stepdaughters, reads voraciously, and enjoys golf.

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  • Kent Stephan Jensen

    "...And what else do you think you might want to hear from Walt?"

    Well, I'd like for Walt to explain how it feels like being owned by Unilever? How does that jibe with the Ben & Jerry's brand. What's cool about it. And what's not cool about it. Feel free to be transparent.

    PS: Walt seems like a very nice guy.


  • Erika James

    Openness, and to use a related term, honesty, is another key element of trust. Stakeholders must trust industry leadership to be open and honest about strategy, intent, and purpose. When there is openness in the relationship between an industry and its clients it is easier to attract and retain followers in addition to gaining support of external bodies, such as regulatory agencies. Openness creates an environment that allows industry leaders to be agile in coordinating efforts across businesses and firms internal and external to the industry. But more important to us as stakeholders, agility and coordination leads to creativity and innovation in problem solving—which I agree with A.K. Mishra (a well-known author on the topic) is the primary activity in crisis resolution.

    When considering the pillars of trust-something lacking between the public and the finance industry right now-it requires transparency, especially in an industry like the finance industry that to the public seems muddled and complex. Transparency is created through communication. Attempting candor and open and honest communication in the midst of a crisis is not only extremely difficult for any leader of a large organization (they certainly do not want to expose any weaknesses, whether personal or organizational), but is also likely to be met with some resistance. But it is in these moments and under these circumstances that a leader’s mettle will be tested. Part of candor is accepting responsibility for things that are of one’s own making, and taking accountability for those things that may have been beyond one’s control. Only once a culture of mutual understanding and transparency exists can we expect trust to proliferate throughout the industry, and when there is trust we can more readily and collaboratively respond to threats and other crisis situations that may arise in the future.

  • Rodney North

    What qualifies as “transparent”?

    First, it requires telling the truth.
    For example, contrary to what Walt Freese stated B & J abandoned the 7-1 pay ratio from top-to-bottom way back in 1995, as was covered (a little) by the the media and as was reported by them here in their SEC filings (do a “find” for “compensation”- ) and as explained in detail in Ben & Jerry’s own online FAQ section (which in the context of this Fast Co. piece IS a good example of transparency, unlike the video interview posted here)

    Second, it ideally means being both transparent internally and externally. For example, Ben & Jerry could at least publicly state their revenue instead of merely stating that it is ‘somewhere between $200 million and $500 million’. See

    Third, it should mean open-book management ( ), as popularized by Jack Stack (and as practiced by Equal Exchange [my worker-owned cooperative], Whole Foods, and many more – and even maybe by Ben & Jerry’s – tho’ that is not stated.)

    Forth, and maybe most importantly, it should mean creating a structure where the transparency is meaningful, and where people who have access to information can act on it without fear. Walt Freese says that employees are encouraged to, basically, ‘speak truth to power’, but that notion is only real when there is a structure that enables those with less power (employees, customers, small investors) to _safely_ act on it. If B & J is unionized (and I don’t know) this could be true, or if the employees were to elect the majority of the board that is Mr. Freese’s boss (highly unlikely) this might also be true. Otherwise I would like to know more about how – and if – B & J really honors whistle blowers.

    Rodney North

  • Anonymous

    Steinar, you say that transparency is a growing trend. While companies like Ben & Jerry's stand out, do you think this is going on in less well known companies?

  • Eirik Hansen

    Its inspiring to hear someone from top-management talk not only about, but with clear engagement about being transparent. A company (or at least top-management) can decide not to be transparent, but in my opinion it is more or less impossible to maintain that 100%. This will easily lead to speculations and assumptions which in many cases are much harder to control, both internally and externally. In addition what is being said about "creating a culture where critical and constructive questions and discussions are being raised" is not only right - but necessary!!

  • Steinar Knutsen

    Transparency seems to be a growing trend and for good reason. Social media and the Internet is general has opened the door for consumers to openly share their opinions and discuss your company, good or bad ... and in real time. Companies that join or lead the discussion with an open and honest approach stand to gain loyalty by building trust, credibility and rapport. In my opinion, companies stand to gain by adopting a culture of transparency.

    Steinar Knutsen

  • Sharon McGann

    I think transparency is a great and necessary aspiration, it keeps managers and leaders open to feedback that ensures their decisions do not become subtly self-serving, but remain serving the whole stakeholder constituency.
    PS on a self-serving note, I am so pleased Ben & Jerry's has reached Sydney in time for summer! Bring on more socially responsible divine tasting products that do good while they taste good - eaten in moderation of course!