Things I learned from CEOs last week about sustainable business

Last week I had the privilege of moderating much of the morning session at the Responsible Business Summit in London.

I chaired sessions with Sir Mark Moody Stuart, ex of Anglo American and Shell, Justin King of Sainsbury's, Rob Boogaard of Interface, Chris Grigg of British Land, Alan Clark of SAB Miller and Marco Goncalves, SVP at Nestle.

We ran the sessions in interview format, with audience Q&A.

A week later, here's a few of the takeaways as I recall them:

In General:

  • Responsible business is stumbling, not smoothly sliding, its way onto the boardroom agenda. That's no surprise given its complexities and given how different the issues are per company and the breadth and depth of them once tackled in any meaningful way.
  • It's still an agenda without a uniform leadership approach, aside from the voluntary standards and frameworks/tools raising the bar for reporting, and I hope, performance. By this I mean that whilst DJSI and CDP are playing important roles in pushing for better disclosure and progress, much of the leadership agenda is about the personalities of the CEOs involved. That's how leadership works, (more art than science) so we shouldn't be surprised.
  • This matters because whilst companies love to be and appear, consistent, their approach to sustainable business has the current CEOs footprints on it as much as it does the culture of the company. As leaders change, corporate cultures can and do too, and this affects how they view and work on, sustainable business. For companies where the CEO is not hugely personally passionate about the agenda, about the best you can do is get them to learn their lines effectively. 
More specifically:
  • Lots of consultants and PR firms love to bang on about reputation but often fail to link it to the most important factor: Real, authentic actions that are highly visible and effective. Justin King at Sainsbury's has made a real difference with both employees and customers by being an authentic leader, energetically engaging colleagues and customers visibly and consistently for a decade. Customers who write in get a real letter back and the Sainsbury's social media team have the decision making power to use humour and humility to engage customers.
  • CEOs such as Alan Clark of SAB Miller have no doubt of the importance of sustainable business in emerging markets. He takes the simple view, beyond the old paradigm that sustainability work is charity or aid-related, that you must show host countries how your business adds value to their societies. More importantly, building up local capacity in the supply chain not only does that, but offers you that all important supply security when drought, politics, trade or other issues suddenly bite in a particular part of the world.
  • Rob Boogaard of Interface was typically direct (I love that about Interface, there is just no messing around at all) in his assessment of how far there is to go. His company are a true inspiration (though not perfect by any means) but he was very frank about the slowly changing institutional blockages to their message getting across to others in a meaningful way. (Check out my podcast series with Rob and his colleagues here) The question he raises, which I don't know the answer to, is how can we get leadership firms to truly change much slower moving industries? The circular economy movement looks like our best chance, but the examples we see in that space are often small scale and cherry picked from the menu of business as usual.
  • Marco Goncalves, SVP at Nestle was determined to point out just how seriously his company takes their "Creating Shared Value" approach. Their results are impressive and it is clear to me that the company is doing excellent work down in the supply chain, particularly in commodities sourcing. See the example with Golden Agri resources and TFT for an example. 
  • Sir Mark Moody-Stuart and Tom Vesey of Risk2Reputation offered some salutary lessons from history, suggesting that despite much progress in recent decades, leaders have to remember the fundamentals of openness and engagement, and not get lost in the detail of their every day work. This may sound obvious, but you only have to turn on the news to see boards lose perspective regularly, with increasingly larger effects on public trust. 
Much else came out of the event over the two days, the above is simply what I recall from that first session where we focused on leadership. Sign up for updates from this blog top right and I'll post some more from the event in the coming weeks. 
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