Responsible Leadership: An interview with the Interim Executive Director of Grow Asia

08 Dec 2021

Responsible Leadership: An interview with the Interim Executive Director of Grow Asia

Bev Postma speaks with Yan Vermeulen on how vital intentionality, partnership and diversity is to drive sustainable change

Yan: Bev, thank you for joining us today. As you know, we're embarking on a global leadership series where we interview CEOs and key executives on sustainability and responsible leadership. For those that don’t know, Bev is a very accomplished policy and sustainability leader. Bev is currently leading Grow Asia, a multi stakeholder platform established by the World Economic Forum and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Bev: Thanks, Yan. It's great to be here.

Yan: So, first question, what does sustainability mean to your organisation?

Bev: I think most of the time, we're simply talking about ensuring a healthy, lasting future for both people and planets. And as we know, that means restoring balance, and fixing some of the things that have gone wrong, not just at a product or market level, but at a system wide level.

At Grow Asia, we know that none of us can do this alone. We all play a very small part in the overall system of change. And we tend to as humans, and as companies and governments, design solutions in silos.

For us, sustainability is all about collaboration for impact. As you said, Grow Asia was designed by the World Economic Forum to be a very visionary multi stakeholder platform that is now endorsed by all 10 of the ASEAN nations in Southeast Asia.

We bring together senior decision makers in governments and companies, and we match them with the right entrepreneurs and experts who are designing great solutions for things like agri-finance, digital tools, climate positive technologies for rural enterprises, and for gender inclusion. We then broker both regional and country level partnerships, to deliver real joint up action.

We do that by using our network of country and community led partnerships. It's very much a hub and spoke model. And we make sure that any regional solutions follow very clearly mapped impact pathways to reach the millions of small business owners and farmers in Southeast Asia, that, as we know, underpin our global food system. To be sustainable these solutions must outlast all of us.

If we are truly to meet our goal of making these food systems more inclusive, more resilient, and more sustainable, solutions have to be both compelling and profitable.

Grow Asia, I think, has earned its reputation, not just as a regional talking shop. But as a trusted, honest broker, with very focused delivery pathways based on the principle of sustainable partnership.

Yan: You bring up an interesting point, though, the long-lasting part of it. And if I look from a corporate world, many companies might still be perceived as greenwashing, for instance. Or maybe, sustainability is what the market wants or what employees want.

I'm very interested to hear your comments on the longevity of the solution. Sustainability is broader than nature, than saving the trees or oceans. It's liberating. It's education. It's equality. It’s diversity. So, thinking of responsible leadership, what does that mean to you as an individual, as a leader?

Bev: Leadership is just a constant journey of discovery, of making mistakes, learning from others.

Responsible leadership starts with intentionality. I think it's the intent to want to leave a positive impact on the world. And to recognise that none of us can do this alone. I think intentionality is one of the foundations of sustainability, it's one of the hardest elements to measure or put metrics to. But I think we all know it, when we see it.

Good leadership is about putting aside our natural competitive differences and celebrating diversity, even when it's really challenging to have different people and perspectives in the room. It can slow things down trying to find a common goal. But I think leadership is about making that space, harnessing all of our individual strengths and skills, and putting systems in place that allow us to be greater than the sum of our parts, no matter what sector or background we come from.

I don't think I've ever viewed myself as a sustainability leader. It's a fairly new concept. I started out long before that word was within our lexicon. But I guess I've always enjoyed sitting at this nexus of government, business and civil society, to help break down the natural silos and echo chambers that tend to exist.

At Grow Asia, we believe that the power of this idea of pre-competitive collaboration is what's really going to change the world. And this means finding ways to acknowledge our differences and moving beyond them to focus on delivering some common goals.

I call it the 60/40 rule. We will rarely be able to agree on more than 60% of things put to very diverse actors in the room. So rather than focusing on arguing over the 40% of things that we're going to struggle with, we can focus on the 60% of things that we can agree on and make real progress on. And I think that's the only way we can lead sustainable change. So intentional leadership is about being courageous and accountable. Change is difficult. And we need everyone at the table firing on all cylinders.

At Grow Asia, it's all about finding those inspiring solutions that get everyone excited and give everyone a win. And sustainability is all about people. And for me as a leader, it's about creating safe spaces to hold the most difficult conversations and allowing everyone to bring the best version of themselves and the entities that they represent, to solve these big problems together.

Yan: That’s amazing. You bring up Partnership, which is of course one of the Sustainable Development Goals, thank you very much for your insights there. And thank you much for joining us today.

Bev: You're welcome. Thanks, Yan.

Find out more on how our services can help you identify leaders to drive your organisation's sustainability agenda.