Through his research, Hult International Business School’s Matt Gitsham has identified three areas where you as a business leader need to be thinking and acting differently
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a massive global challenge that has required management action from leaders across all organisations. The Ukraine crisis has similarly required management teams to think and act quickly about their most appropriate role in a human rights crisis.
But many other global challenges have been forcing their way onto the management agenda too – the climate emergency, biodiversity collapse, #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, the genocide in Xinjiang in Western China.
We tend to think these kinds of challenges are for governments to deal with, and they are, but not alone. Increasingly citizens – whether as customers, employees, or users of public services – expect public and private sector organisations to be playing a leadership role on tackling global challenges too.
And more and more organisations are. At the height of the pandemic, Apple announced its intention to be entirely carbon neutral by 2030 – including emissions from across it’s supply chain and product life cycle, with consequent implications for all companies seeking to be suppliers to Apple. Unilever has goals to for its supply chain to be deforestation free, and for its products to help a billion people improve their health and wellbeing. The UK National Health Service has a target to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2045.
As public expectations grow, and more and more organisations get engaged, all this has implications for leaders at all levels across organisations.
To explore how exactly business leaders have been finding their leadership role changing in practice, we’ve led research engaging with CEOs and senior executives at organisations recognised as leading on sustainability and global challenges.
Through our research, we’ve identified three areas where you as a business leader need to be thinking and acting differently:
Thinking differently about your leadership role
First is to start thinking differently about what counts as your day job. Taking action on climate, pollution, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, human rights issues in your supply chain – all this is now a core part of your job, as important as anything else.
Taking action in these areas isn’t a distraction from your core work, or something that just adds cost. It is core to creating and protecting value for the organisation.
This means as a leader you can’t afford to be uninformed – you need to learn about these global challenges, what they mean for the work you’re involved in, and how and where you should be intervening.
Leading change in the organisation around you
Second is the role you play in leading change in the organisation around you through the language you use and the example you set. You influence people through how you articulate the purpose of the work everyone is involved in, the kinds of goals you set, what you hold people accountable for. What targets do you set for your people around carbon, diversity, human rights?
What do you stick your neck out and speak up about, even if risky, rather than turning a blind eye? What are you seen to ask questions about? Who and what do you champion through the stories you tell? What are you seen to prioritise through what you are seen spending your own time doing?
How do you enable leadership to emerge through framing questions and challenges, rather than telling people what they should prioritise?
All these leadership actions are important steps you can take to encourage others to lead on global challenges around you.
Leading change in the wider ecosystem around the organisation
But your leadership role isn’t just within the organisation. Increasingly, you have a leadership role in the wider ecosystem around your organisation too.
Your leadership role extends to leading behaviour change amongst customers and service users, persuading suppliers to do things differently, and other partner organisations involved in the same sphere or ‘ecosystem’ as your own. You quite possibly even have a leadership role to persuade policymakers to change regulatory frameworks.
To be able to play these aspects of your leadership role well, you need to be able to engage well with multiple different stakeholder groups, be able to contribute to public and political debate with an informed point of view, and to engage in multi-stakeholder collaborations and partnerships with unconventional partners.
Take consumer goods giant Unilever for example. Former CEO Paul Polman launched Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan in 2010, a ten-year strategy to double the size of the business by 2020 by setting targets such as helping a billion people improve their hygiene habits, bringing safe drinking water to 500 million people, doubling the proportion of the food portfolio meeting stringent nutrition standards, halving the greenhouse gas impact of Unilever products across their lifecycle and sourcing 100 per cent of raw materials sustainably.
Over the ten years of the implementation of this strategy, many of these targets were met and good progress was made on many others, and Unilever has become a benchmark for others to emulate. A corporate strategy with goals like this has required leading cultural change within the organisation, but also leading change in consumer behaviour, leading change among suppliers and competitors across industry sectors and engaging with governments to lead change in policy frameworks.
What does this mean for you as you advance your career
Over and again, we heard from business leaders ‘nothing in my career or my training prepared me for this’. How can you be proactive in developing the mindsets and skills more valuable in today’s leadership context?
Despite their sense of lack of training and preparedness, we asked business leaders for their perspectives on how it was that they and some of their peers had grasped the need to lead in this kind of way while many of their other contemporaries were still operating from an out-of-date leadership blueprint.
While each individual’s story was unique, the clear theme was that certain key experiences had been crucial in influencing and shifting perspectives. For some it was formative experiences around upbringing, university and business school study. For others it was influential mentors or first-hand experiences like engaging with people living in poverty, personal experience of challenges like the impacts of climate change, or personal first-hand experiences of the changing interests of key stakeholders, or engaging in networks that focused on these issues.
These stories have some implications for how you can think about developing yourself.
First, you should look for opportunities to learn – be curious about sustainability and global challenges, look for opportunities to build your knowledge through any number of resources and courses available.
But more than this, look to learn through first-hand experiences – can you find courses with hands-on experiential learning opportunities? Perhaps look for opportunities to volunteer with organisations working on sustainability challenges? Many businesses now offer opportunities for experiential service learning as part of their leadership development pathways – is this something open to you that you could pursue?
And can you get involved in networks bringing together business leaders on sustainability? There are lots of networks bringing businesses together on sustainability, such as the UN Global Compact, and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and then there are lots of smaller local networks bringing together like-minded professionals around global challenges themes – seek these out, find a way to get involved and learn. In the workplace maybe you could seek out your organisation’s own sustainability network, or start one up if it doesn’t already exist.
Above all, look to learn through doing – how can you find the opportunity to get involved in sustainability-related work? Look for projects you could get involved in or help get off the ground in your workplace or your community. Experiment, try things out, then reflect on what you’re learning.
Matt Gitsham is Professor of Sustainable Development, Hult International Business School.
Read about Hult International Business School’s work to embed ethics, responsibility and sustainability across the curriculum and campus in our UN Principles of Responsible Management Education Sharing Information on Progress Report https://www.hult.edu/en/about/