Why some business leaders feel responsible for saving the planet whilst others don’t

04 Dec 2019

Why some business leaders feel responsible for saving the planet whilst others don’t

Facing a climate crisis with increasingly devastating effects, there’s a good reason why some leaders are acting faster than others.

Our values drive many of our behaviours. They often subconsciously influence our thoughts, words and actions. They help us grow and develop, create the future we want to experience and affect our daily decision-making.

Those values are formed by various influences, but more generally, by the geopolitical environment in which a generation grows up, as the World Values Survey shows.

Baby Boomer values have been ruling

So, what values influence the leaders who run businesses today, and is there any change on the horizon? As an executive search firm looking for exceptional senior leaders, this is a key question for us at Odgers Berndtson.

Today, it is fair to say, senior leadership positions are still dominated by Baby Boomers (born 1946-64). As post-WW2 children, they grew up in what is described as an environment of “Traditions & Survival”. On the whole, they had little time to think and worry about the meaning of life.

Their values have typically been influenced by a short-term, capitalistic, profit-maximising mindset which can outweigh far-sightedness and enlightened self-interest (Tibbs, 2011).

Unrestrained economic extraction

With Baby Boomer values in play, it’s no surprise most businesses operate without much restraint on unsustainable economic extraction. And this is compounded by a capitalistic mindset, driven by a strong work ethic, competitiveness, discipline and goal-centricity.

What is lacking is the moral and social commitment to ethical behaviour, rightness and goodness in our relationships with each other, and, importantly, with the earth (Ikerd, 2008).

Values are changing

Cultural Value Shift Theory, which looks at value shifts over time, has identified and confirmed a shift between Baby Boomers and Millennials. Unlike their predecessors, the latter seems to have predominantly ‘Secular-Rational’ and ‘Self-Expression’ values. These encourage a post-capitalistic, non-materialistic mindset, driven by longevity, sustainability and principled commitment.  

Why and how our values are shifting

Millennials have been privileged to grow up in a materially-secure environment. As a result, their concerns have shifted from purely material and socially-related concerns towards self-actualisation. Commonly, they question whether there is more to life.

Millennials are driving  behaviours

Concerned about future generations and the fate of the planet, Millennials want to do business with responsible corporations, whether it’s as consumers or employees.

In fact, 70% of Millennials say they are more likely to choose to work for a business with a strong environmental agenda (HBR, 2013).

There is a clear challenge to traditional leadership

Millennials are looking for leaders whose values are shaping the type of corporate visions that are driving behaviours and actions demonstrating a deep commitment to: 

  • Ecological sustainability and saving the planet
  • Women's issues and civil liberties
  • Personal growth (including both psychological and spiritual dimensions)
  • "Authenticity" ("walking the talk")
  • Encouraging other businesses to stop nodding at the facts, and actually care and act on these issues

Significantly, today many Millennials are moving into increasingly influential, more senior leadership positions.

What’s next?

While the transformation is taking place, many of those with leadership power within and beyond businesses continue to be slow in changing their behaviours and actions.

But they will eventually decline in influence while the rising culture will continue to rise, and inevitably assume a  leading role (Tibbs, 2011).

Competitive advantage

When surveyed, 97% of CEOs are clear that sustainability can be a route to competitive advantage in their industry (Accenture, 2016).

This is underlined by the fact that assets under management at the biggest 500 firms world declined overall in 2018 by 3%, whilst those managed in ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) mandates grew by 17.8%. (Willis Towers Watson, 2019)

An Accenture survey shows that 97% of CEOs interviewed about sustainability see it as important to the future success of their business.

Early influencers and new models

As society embraces the values underpinning sustainability, influential individuals like Paul Polman (see his latest contribution to the climate debate here) , David Attenborough, Kofi Annan, and Greta Thunberg, are endeavouring to influence systematic change.

Economists across the world are also challenging the old-school capitalistic system. They are offering models which enable businesses to move away from pure profit maximisation and towards a more all-rounded purpose.

Professor Mariana Mazzucato is redefining the purpose of private organisations to be “wealth creators”. Bruno Roche and Jay Jakub’s book demonstrates that when wealth is shared across the value chain and capital encompasses human, social, natural requirements, as well as money or tangible assets, everyone wins.

Driving the right behaviours

Business leaders now have the economic frameworks and the technology to support the transformational changes required to operate in a sustainable way.

But how do you identify the business leaders who do have the values to drive the change at pace?

Who in your business has the relevant mindset (values), track record (experience), personality traits (leadership competencies) and agility (intelligence) to accelerate your sustainability agenda?

Given Odgers Berndtson’s commitment to build exceptional leadership, we have developed a robust process to identify the fit-for-purpose leaders you need in your business now.

In our executive search mandates or in-depth individual assessments, we first work with our clients to define what the contribution to sustainability goals is expected to be, irrespective of the executive position.

In order to meet those expectations, we are able to tell you for each candidate:

  • Their impact to date across the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) factors – and whether that impact has been strong at the individual, organisational or ecosystem level
  • Their strengths and limitations across the 19 key leadership characteristics identified by research as prevalent in leaders owning the sustainability agenda

Armed with this rich picture, you can be confident that you are promoting, hiring and developing the ready-now or next-generation leaders with the values and competence to deliver a sustainable (and profitable) future for your company and the planet.