Chief executives need to embrace employee activists

Anyone attending the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos this week will be left in no doubt, that the success of their business, depends on thinking different. But as they seek to turn ambition into reality, do they have the support of the stakeholders that really matter?

Chief executives need to embrace employee activists

From the Davos Manifesto 2020, which re-writes the universal purpose of a company, to climate change and repairing the damage we’ve done to the planet, sustainability will be core to conversation among leaders at Davos this week.

They will return home informed, inspired and – hopefully – ready for action. However, it is at this point, that reality will hit: they’ve got to convince everyone else.

While 2019 stood out for public action around climate change, examples of employee activism were also quietly rising. Groups of employees lobbying their employer for change – with Google as a high- profile example – and employee champions inspiring new initiatives, such as Back Yard Nature which Iceland started in response to a call for action from employees working in stores.

All the leaders at Davos need to know what their colleagues really think about the big issues – and ideally, they will be actively speaking on their behalf. Those who are, will quickly reap the rewards in terms of turning their – and their colleagues’ – ambition into action.

It’s naive to think that everyone in an organisation will be at the forefront of change, and there are plenty of cynics in every business. However, each organisation will also have its outriders who are bursting with ideas and passionate storytellers who want to get involved. The trick is to find them and give them permission to act and inspire others.

You do that by thinking about a business as a community as opposed to a hierarchy, made up of individuals with attitudes rather than roles. By breaking departmental barriers and removing siloes and titles it becomes possible to identify people from every level of the organisation who hold similar views.  

Uniting these individuals is incredibly powerful. Involving them in developing sustainability programmes or initiatives creates multiple benefits, from a fresh perspective in idea generation to peer-to-peer communication that will encourage the cynics to get involved far more effectively than any message from the top. It is critical for cross-company ownership, and ownership comes before action.

For too long, activists have been seen as trouble-makers when in fact that energy and passion is exactly what CEOs need to enable rapid, large scale change. As they return back to HQ next week, business leaders need to start their journey from inspiration to initiative, by asking their employees to get involved.

It’s time to think differently and put employee activism at the heart of organisational action.

By Amanda Powell-Smith, CEO of Forster Communications

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