shaping the best mould

December 19, 2019

Marga Hoek is a global thought leader on
sustainable business and author of
The Trillion Dollar Shift.

The UN Global Compact asks companies to first do business responsibly and then pursue opportunities to solve societal challenges through business innovation and collaboration.* This could demand a repurposing of the business in alignment with the SDG goals—a task only authentic and active leadership can help accomplish.

Achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) implies bold leadership. Incremental innovation, and gradual steps forward will not bring us to the destination. Business must—and can—repurpose. This can be accomplished since repurposing is indeed a business case that will only improve in the future.

Leadership by example is key, as is education. They both intertwine. We have some inspiring transformational global leaders like Paul Polman from Unilever, Gerard Mestrallet from Engie, Feike Sijbesma from DSM, and Henrik Poulsen from Ørsted paving the way, and we desperately need their executive successors to follow suit as we need many, many more leaders like them.

Business leaders paving the way must be known, acknowledged, and supported since building the bridge is much harder than walking on it. It is significant that UN Global Compact supports business repurposing, and puts forward the call for UN Pioneers. After the adaptation of the SDGs, Global Compact began to annually profile
SDG pioneers.

True SDG-leadership must be understood thoroughly. It is not about adapting current business models within the comfort zone or within the scope on one’s own company walls. SDG leadership is about responsibility at a much higher system level. It is about starting to think from a whole world’s perspective and placing the role of one’s own company, supply chain, and customers in that perspective. In other words: it means ‘beginning with the end in mind’ like Stephen Covey stated so accurately in many of his leadership books.

True leadership means authentic leadership. SDG leadership means principle-based leadership. The principles apply regardless the sector, regardless the company, regardless the continent or country. True leadership also means active leadership. The majority of business leaders are still mainly talking about the SDGs and its opportunities, but not taking real action or responsibility for them yet. Engaging with the SDGs is still a matter for frontrunners, with 71 percent of leaders planning to engage, but only 13 percent having actually identified the tools they need to assess their SDG impact.

The majority of business leaders are still mainly talking about the SDGs and its opportunities, but not taking real action or responsibility for them yet.

blueprint for better business

illustration by swapnil redkar

UN Global Compact Developed the blueprint for better business, indicating the way forward to a principle-based approach. It is a comprehensive, thorough blueprint that I can recommend as it can definitely be a great help for leaders to navigate the SDG landscape. It provides a framework for companies aiming towards SDG leadership. It states clearly that business leadership on the SDGs evolves through repeating three steps:
01 prioritize actions on SDGs
02 act to execute those actions
03 learn from the achieved impact in order to improve both your own company and others.

SDG business leadership implies not only creating impact through and for your own company’s actions, but also impacting and encouraging your supply chain, your broader sector, and the business ecosystem at large. True SDG leadership inspires and urges others to help build the bridge and cross over to more sustainable practices and a more sustainable future.

The blueprint mentions five crucial qualities of SDG leadership, and advises on relevant actions on all of the SDGs. The five qualities clearly reinforce and substantiate the leadership responsibilities mentioned earlier:

  • intentional: support for the SDGs is an integral, deliberate part of a leading company’s Strategy
  • ambitious: a leading company’s level of ambition exceeds prevailing levels of ambition, its actions are material in the context of its end-to-end operations, and it focuses on long-term outcomes.
  • consistent: support for the SDGs is embedded across organisational functions and external communications
  • collaborative: support for the SDGs involves partnerships, including with business, governments, civil society, and other actors
  • accountable: a leading company is transparent, manages risks, seeks out meaningful engagement with stakeholders, and is accountable for adverse impacts.

SDG leadership will come with a positive prize and so there is good business reason to be, or become, an SDG leader. At the same time, SDG leadership can only be demonstrated and pursued with a realistic view of the hurdles that will need to be overcome, and the business case that can be built. Although there is potential for all business to build sustainable business cases, not all challenges are readily profitable business cases at the moment. And with externalities not internalized yet, sustainable business cases lack up to 40 percent of their real value at this time. So again, you need to be a principle-based leader to accomplish the task at hand and to be a shaper, rather than a follower.

building trust for a better world

Another hurdle is the growing instability in many parts of the world which has a damaging effect on trust. This is, in fact, a huge threat to long-term planning and tight connections between multiple parties in society. Trust however is something we need desperately; it is “a vital element of any well-functioning society,” as Unilever CEO Paul Polman rightly stated. But trust has never been so low, and the lack of trust has never been so broad, related to politics, government and other institutions, as well as business. To accelerate our actions to achieve the Goals, we need trust and that trust will grow when we achieve the Goals. Both are interdependent: accelerating for the achievement of the Goals means building trust and vice versa. It is not a coincidence that Goal 17 is about the partnerships.

guiding CEOs towards SDG impact

The encouraging news is that by now CEOs, management, and everyone else can make good use of tools and reports to guide their way. It is also the main reason for this book: to support, inspire and help to grow SDG leadership. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), released a very useful tool – The CEO Guide to the SDGs. It describes the implications of the SDGs across four pillars:

  • risk of inaction
  • capturing opportunities
  • governance and transparency
  • need for collaboration

The WBCSD stresses that inaction on the SDGs will come at a price for both individual companies as well as the global economy. It describes the opportunities for business at hand, and points out the need for transparency, for example by reporting practices, and carbon disclosure.

Last but not least, it emphasizes the need for cross-sectoral and cross-stakeholder partnerships and collaborations. In fact, all the research shows that collaborative engagement with the SDGs, and bold, determined leadership, leads to a higher system-level shift than individual company transformations. One business simply cannot achieve the scale of impact needed all by itself, so collaboration is key.

All the research shows that collaborative engagement with the SDGs, and bold, determined leadership, leads to a higher system-level shift than individual company transformations.

In addition to Global Compact and the WBCSD, many organizations and sustainability networks around the globe are working to support you in your way forward. Consultancy firms like McKinsey, PwC, KPMG, and others share crucial knowledge, and there are handy apps available to download on your phone, tablet or even your iWatch, such as the SDGs in Action app.