1 February 2021


What have we learnt from living through the pandemic?

This month I’m looking forward and thinking about one of my hot coaching topic predictions for 2021, which is Corporate responsibility and sustainability.

One element of this is climate change mitigation and, on reflection, I think the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted this in many ways. It has been a major distraction from the necessary focus on mitigation, for example, and yet also played a role in reducing carbon emissions from reduced air and road travel. The pandemic has also been a global wake up call to some people’s belief that humanity is wholly in control of events. We have lived simpler lives for nearly a year now, forced on us by the powers of nature. 

Whilst failure to manage climate change will bring different and far greater global challenges, the pandemic has also offered a view into the future of the impact nature will have on our lives if we do not act accordingly today. It has shown the world that when we have to, governments and society can make major changes, and can make them fast.

Many organisations are already delivering on their carbon emission reduction programmes as part of their sustainability agenda, together with other environmental challenges, such as biodiversity loss, waste, single-use plastic and water availability. This environmental focus sits within the wider corporate responsibility and sustainability agenda which, as well as being environmental, includes social and economic issues: how we behave in the markets and communities we operate in; how we treat our staff and other stakeholders in the workplace and marketplace.

In the investment community, in particular, this is often referred to as “ESG” (Environmental, Social and Governance).

“Corporate” can be interchanged for “Organisation” responsibility and sustainability here because it is as relevant for public and charity sector organisations as it is for the private sector. Essentially, this issue is about organisations taking responsibility for their Social, Environmental and Economic Impacts, minimising the negatives and maximising the positive impacts they can have.

Just as the pandemic gave a focus to climate change, it has also shone a light on responsible business practice and those organisations that stepped up to the plate versus those found wanting in this area. The organisations that acted responsibly will have gained trust from their customer/stakeholder base in doing so that will carry them forwards for many years to come. Whether this responsible action is hardcoded into the organisations concerned or simply an example of the right call at the right time remains at the heart of the corporate responsibility and sustainability debate.

In David Grayson, Mark Lee and Chris Coulters’ book All In: The Future of Business Leadership the authors present a roadmap for global businesses who have yet to embed sustainability into their corporate strategies. The authors identify five key attributes to corporate sustainability based on two decades of GlobeScan – Sustainability Leaders Survey Research, as well as 40 interviews with the CEOs and CSOs (Corporate Sustainability Officers) from recognised sustainability organisations. 

These five attributes identifed are:

  • Purpose: Why we do what we do – the organising idea for why the business exists;
  • Plan: What we do and what we aspire to do as an organisation;
  • Culture: How we do things round here;
  • Collaboration: Who we work with in other businesses and other sectors of society to be more effective; and
  • Advocacy: Where the company uses the authority of the business to encourage others to act to advance social justice and sustainable development.

The organisations in the 40 interviews captured in the book include the likes of Unilever, Marks & Spencer, Patagonia, Nike and Nestle, which have clear purpose statements that give focus to their intentions, together with leaders who lead their organisations in line with the attributes above both internally and out in their supply chains and communities.

The book makes the case that such a structured approach to responsibility and sustainability is as relevant to a startup as it is to the multinational organisations it evidences.

As we prepare for a return to normality with the vaccine programme rolling out, will we reflect on the lessons of the year past and ask ourselves what did we do well, what could we have done better and what did we get wrong?

Also, have we made decisions on the hoof during this period, or were we guided by an established responsibility and sustainability framework that governs how we operate? 

Don’t get me wrong, I recognise in a year such as the one that has just passed we have clearly made decisions as situations arose. The pertinent question now is what ground rules, systems and processes should be established in such circumstances to influence the options we choose from or which guide us in our decision-making? Or to put it another way, do we have a North Star and clarity about how we want everyone in the organisation to behave?

Signing up for and implementing a corporate responsibility and sustainability agenda is no small task. However, with an ever-increasing focus on organisations from investors, customers and other stakeholders for those organisations to evidence not just their financial returns but also their environmental, social and governance measures and impacts, is it not now the time to start thinking about what this agenda means for all of us?

This may just turn out to be one of the pressing questions in the months ahead.

I hope this is useful and thought-provoking and as always if you have any questions, please get in touch.

From the author:

As coaching is not an advice-giving service, these blogs are not written with the intention of proposing solutions to common leadership challenges. Instead, they are thought pieces with the aim of prompting the reader to think more deeply about the topic and reflect on whether it warrants further exploration, with or without a coach.

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