Messages from the board: CEOs outline the skills needed by the leaders of tomorrow

At the One Young World Summit in London last week, chief executives and board members from global companies including Unilever, Virgin and BP took to the stage to send powerful messages for what the leaders of tomorrow need to embrace today to drive sustainable business.

Numerous CEOs appeared during the summit

Numerous CEOs appeared during the summit

Against a backdrop of climate strikes and trust deficit for businesses and politicians alike, senior representatives, chief executives and board members from a host of corporate giants took to the One Young World Summit last week to discuss the new leader of tomorrow with a youthful and motivated audience.

Wedged in between keynote speeches from the likes of Dr Jane Goodall, Mary Robinson and Ellie Goulding, business representatives shared some of their insight as to what the leaders of today and tomorrow must embrace to deliver sustainable change. Here, edie rounds up all the key messages from the board.

Businesses must balance privilege and responsibility – DSM’s Feike Sijbesma

Global nutrition, health and sustainable living firm Royal DSM was recently amongst the 20 companies, including Telefonica, Vodafone and Unilever, with a total market capitalisation of more than $1.2trn to commit to setting science-based targets aligned to 1.5C reductions and net-zero emissions for 2050.

At the Summit, the firm’s chief executive Feike Sijbesma noted the correlation between the power business had to ignite lasting change and its responsibility to do so in an environmentally conscious manner.

“If you have more impact, if you have more power, then I hope you develop your feeling of responsibility also. A lot of power and a low level of responsibility is a dangerous combination, so I hope that it is balanced,” he said.

“Those who are privileged, and have the best education, and the most money, you don’t find anything about responsibility. The leaders need to take responsibility, and you don’t need an organisation of 10,000 people to lead, you can start small.”

Incidentally, DSM’s vice-president for sustainability Jeff Turner listed carbon pricing as top of his green policy wishlist during a We Mean Business event earlier this year. Turner is notably a member of The World Bank Group’s Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, alongside more than 30 national governments and more than 200 other private sector organisations, and epitomises Sijbesma’s comments the privilege could and should lead to action.

“We recognise, very clearly, that any scenario we anticipate can only be delivered with the appropriate policies in place – in particular, by making sure that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are firmly embedded into our financial system through a price on carbon,” Turner said.

“Putting a price on carbon internally has helped to drive the mindset transformation and is also why we are committed to advocating externally.”

We need the activists – Unilever’s Alan Jope

One of Jope’s first acts as chief executive of the global consumer company was to write to trade associations and business groups that the consumer goods giant is a member of, asking for clarity on whether they believe a transition to net-zero emissions by 2050 is essential.

Jope, who replaced Paul Polman as Unilever chief executive at the end of 2018, penned an open letter to business groups and trade associations to see whether views on climate action are consistent with his belief corporates should “advocate for policies that advance the goal of the Paris Agreement”, ideally the 1.5C target, which would require net-zero emissions by 2050.

He has also warned that Unilever will sell off brands that do not contribute positively to society, with British favourite Marmite and Magnum ice-cream among the big names thought to be vulnerable to a cull linked to the company's sustainable business agenda.

Jope claimed that the embedded culture of sustainability at Unilever had made activists of its staff, but that the growing popularity of climate strikes would allow the public to push corporates to meet and exceed public pledges.

“Of course, we have tonnes of activists inside our company but we need help from activists outside our company that are pushing us when we don’t do good enough,” Jope said.

“We’re going to move quickly over the next two years. You can watch us and judge us by our actions, not by our words. We need activists to not just push us, but push governments and policy as well.”

Business must use its voice - Sky's Jeremy Darroch

Sky's chief executive Jeremy Darroch took to the One Young World stage to discuss the media organisations Ocean Rescue campaign that had inspired action and awareness on plastic pollution, climate change and environmental degradation.

Darroch is a WWF ambassador and has worked with the organisation on Sky’s successful Rainforest Rescue campaign, and more recently on the Ocean Rescue project, which aims to raise awareness among Sky’s 22 million customers of the dangers of plastic pollution.

He led Sky’s drive to become the world’s first carbon-neutral entertainment company in 2006, and in October 2017 announced that Sky would remove all single-use plastics from its operations, products and supply chain by 2020. Sky is engaging with suppliers to help them invest in renewables through CDP’s Supply Chain Programme and to phase-out single-use plastics as part of the Sky Ocean Ventures fund.

Darroch noted that big business must use its position and global reach to take others on the journey towards and decarbonised and closed-loop society.

“We, as businesses, have got to mobilise public opinion, because if we do that, we can mobilise the political environment and then I think business has a critical role to play in leveraging change at scale. So many people are finding their voice and starting to act and if we can get businesses as part of this conversation we can make change,” Darroch said.

“This can’t just be for your self-interest and business needs to use its voice, and we’ll use ours to get more business leaders to have an impact.”

It’s time to Unboss business – Novartis’ Vas Narasimhan

Global medicine company Novartis is undergoing a radical transformation to mitigate its climate impact. The company has committed to becoming carbon neutral in its own operations (Scope 1 and 2) by 2025, and then reducing its carbon footprint, including that of our supply chain, by half versus 2016 levels by 2030.

Chief executive Vas Narasimhan believes that getting to these goals, as well as other environmental and societal commitments, will require an internal evolution that allows all staff to have their voice heard and their passions explored. It’s called the Unbossed movement.

“Leadership is a precious resource, but we can make extraordinary things happen. We see leaders that can help ordinary people do extraordinary things. But somewhere along the way we moved to a world of knowledge workers, not just factory or office workers, can you can’t manage knowledge workers like cogs,” he said.

“We have to accept the most complex problems have solutions in the people you work with. Unbossing a company can help unlock them.”

Novartis’ Unboss programme aims to galvanise a new generation of leaders who will continue our journey to build an inspired organisation that seeks to unleash the power of people.

They don’t want old-fashioned micro-managers or hierarchies; instead they want collaborative, purpose-led leaders who create clarity, serve their people, are open to feedback and focused on removing obstacles and empowering their teams.  

Let the ‘new’ lead – Virgin’s Richard Branson

Coincidently, an example of an “unbossed” approach to the Summit came towards the end of the final day, shortly after Narasimhan’s speech.

Sir Richard Branson took to the stage, but rather than offering his own insight and advice on corporate leadership, he took up the role of chair for a session with Jaha Dukureh and Uzo Iweala from the NewNow initiative that fights inequality and injustice in some of the world’s toughest places and tackling global challenges in the process.

Jaha Dukureh is a women’s rights activist and anti-FGM campaigner, while Uzodinma Iweala social entrepreneur, doctor and author. Branson used his time at the Summit to let other extraordinary people shine a light on global issues they are deeply passionate about, which resonated far better with delegates as a result.

Things are now black and white - BMW AG’s Peter Schwarzenbauer

BMW AG’s member of the board of management Peter Schwarzenbauer took to the stage to spell out the warning signs as clearly as possible. Sustainable development, he claimed was one of the few black and white issues facing humanity.

In a presentation that denounced climate deniers Schwarzenbauer called on delegates to remain focused and fight for what they believe in, noting that a new breed of leadership could help reverse some of the main pressures facing society and the planet while breathing new life into business through innovative new products and services

“Everyone can do and everyone must do something, we need this transformation, it is that simple and the options are really black or white,” he said. “I think for myself and everyone else in this room, failure is not an option.”

Innovation can be seen throughout BMW’s business model. In 2016, the German car manufacturer completed a new utility-scale energy storage facility, which uses 2,600 worn electric vehicle (EV) battery modules to stabilise the grid and reduce the impact of peak demand. It is also part of a partnership to integrate a common approach to sustainability throughout the automotive supply chain.

The manufacturer expects EVs to account for between 15-25% of car sales globally by 2025 and has backed the transition with more than £89m in investments at one of its manufacturing hubs in Dingolfing, Germany. 

We need to face the criticism - BP’s Bob Dudley

This last one isn’t so much what was said, but the fact that the conversation was able to take place. BP’s chief executive Bob Dudley and group chief economist Spencer Dale gave a rather woolly presentation at the Summit that was filled with bells, whistles and scribes.

But during a bespoke Q&A, both Dudley and Spencer were faced with some pretty grilling questions on the company’s lobbying links and role as one of the world’s largest emitters.

Dudley reiterated the company’s position that a regional carbon price would help accelerate the transition to net-zero. He also dismissed the notion that BP was one of the main lobbying forces behind weakened legislation on environmental protection in the US and the European Union (EU).

“Two hundred years of economic history says that unless you put a price on something, it won’t actually change behaviours,” Dudley said. “All of us are using carbon, and there’s got to be a united effort to put a carbon tax or price, not just on the people who produce it, but people who use it.”

The soundbites from the discussion weren’t radical, with both BP reps doubling down on their ideology that net-zero would require natural gas and a “sensible” transition path. But it should be commended that BP – which along with other businesses has collectively committed to invest $500,000 into the SDG-focused Lead2030 from One Young World – would use the platform to let its chief executive address the criticism. After all, net-zero won’t be reached unless all parties are in the room and open to discussions.

Matt Mace



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