Unleashing the power of corporate sustainability leadership and social intrapreneurship
The Covid-19 crisis has clearly exposed the vulnerabilities and fragilities of globalisation. It has also proved that in a world with complex and interrelated systemic challenges, everything is not only interconnected, but has exponential and disruptive consequences for all.
The pandemic is accelerating already existing debates on the limitations and flaws of shareholder capitalism, where companies are focused on maximising short-term financial returns and "efficiency" at all costs. The concept of "stakeholder capitalism" – creating shared value for all company stakeholders (employees, customers, suppliers, communities and shareholders) was already gaining ground prior to the current crisis.
In the rebuilding of the economy post crisis, 'business as usual' and traditional corporate leadership will no longer work
The Statement of the Purpose of a Corporation by the Business Round Table in August 2019, the Davos Manifesto from this year's World Economic Forum and BlackRock's CEO Larry Fink annual letters advocating that purpose, ESG criteria and climate risk strategies are "the engine of long term profitability," all illustrate a profound shift in thinking .
There was increasing pressure on and scrutiny of corporate ethics and governance and on the social, environmental and economic impacts a company has across its value chain. The rise of employee activism, ESG and impact investment, and more conscious and demanding consumers were clear signs that society expected companies to change.
Business resilience and (All In) sustainability leadership
The social contract has changed. The expectations on the role of companies in the rebuilding of the economy post crisis will be higher than before. "Business as usual" will not work and nor will traditional corporate leadership.
We will need audacious, principled leaders who will take decisions after listening and engaging with key stakeholders, testing them against their values and purpose and reinforcing their commitment to sustainability as an enabler of future growth and long-term profitability.
By addressing social and environmental challenges, those leaders will create regenerative opportunities to build back better and will be better positioned for future, inevitable disruptions. As one of the present authors (David), together with Chris Coulter and Mark Lee, have argued elsewhere: businesses need to adopt an All In sustainability leadership model .
The All In leadership framework
Companies that want to survive and thrive in this new normal will build organisational resilience by clearly articulating their purpose and reassessing their role in society. Their statement of purpose will be an authentic, inspiring and practical statement of why they exist: what the business is for. They will build a strong, sustainable culture, which is genuinely engaging and empowering of its employees, emphasises innovation as the driver of sustainability and vice versa; and which is open and transparent, ethical and responsible for its impacts.
By reframing global challenges into business and innovation opportunities, they will have the competitive edge and first mover advantages to create products, services and business models with social and environmental positive impact. This will require a comprehensive plan (strategy) for sustainability which covers all aspects of the business and its value chain, is closely aligned with and over time becomes the overall corporate strategy.
Companies that want to survive and thrive in this new normal will build organisational resilience
This requires a mindset and a skillset for collaboration: a willingness and an ability to work with a wide variety of partners such as other businesses, NGOs, social enterprises, governments, international development agencies, academia and so on. Increasingly, this will also involve advocacy – speaking up and speaking out for social justice and sustainable development.
Being aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the objectives of the Paris climate agreement; integrating ESG as key criteria on how the company creates and measures value; setting science-based targets for climate and biodiversity; and unlocking opportunities for circular, collaborative and inclusive business models. These are some ways of ensuring that the Covid-19 responses incorporate the environmental and social dimensions, as well as the economic. They help businesses not only to be better prepared for future disruptions, but also to remain competitive in the longer term.
Having a strong sense of purpose, a clear plan and governance, social and environmental goals in place have assisted companies to take decisions fast and with determination in this crisis. Companies with strong and aligned culture, sense of identity and shared values allowed employees to step in into more leadership roles, to identify, create and find collaborative solutions aligned with the core of the business.
Collaboration will be also key to build back better, as trust and stronger relations with stakeholders is essential to anticipate future needs and nurture ecosystems of innovation.
Finally, when it is clear what the company stands for (advocacy), talent flourishes: unexpected new leaders took a step forward in this crisis regardless of their place in company hierarchies, taking responsibility and action in very critical times and showing how, when the culture is right, employees can be a force for social change and innovation too.
The role of social intrapreneurs as agents of change and corporate transformation
Yet while employees can be a rich source of innovation, they sometimes remain unheard by the "immune system" of the corporation, pyramidal hierarchies, the lack of incentives or budget, or even, no space to create alternative ideas.
Social intrapreneurs could be a key force to building back better a more inclusive, sustainable and accountable economy as well as making stakeholder capitalism a reality. They are "innovators inside companies who are imagining new products, services, business models and practices that generate business value and positive social or environmental impact ."
Social intrapreneurs bring a new perspective in re-shaping business and measuring success, and they are able to help build resilience in companies because they themselves are resilient to begin with. Social intrapreneurs "harness the power of large companies to create new business solutions to address societal problems," make change visible and tangible, and offer alternatives to business as usual, much earlier and to a greater scale than a social entrepreneur could typically do .
Social intrapreneurs see opportunities for social and environmental value when others see only risks and threats
They see opportunities for social and environmental value when others see only risks and threats and use the company platforms to identify and build solutions, with creativity, proactiveness and by building collaboration networks, inside and outside the company. They have the ability to listen to stakeholders, communicate and inspire change, challenge established norms and push their teams to think and work out of the box. They are the "dreamers who do," put purpose into practice, and they need a leadership that gives them the "space" and means to do so.
According to the recent study Business as unusual , social intrapreneurship enhances purpose in five different ways:
- It improves employee engagement, job satisfaction, employee skills and talent attraction/retention (especially for millennials, aiming for purpose and higher meaning in their jobs).
- It leads to mindset shifts, culture change or kicks off corporate transformation.
- Spurs business innovation.
- Reaches new markets or new customers.
- Improves corporate brand equity.
Making business a force for positive change will require a new way of building organisational resilience and a sustainability leadership mindset based on All In attributes. Such mindsets will encourage social intrapreneurship to flourish.
This will make companies not only more fit for purpose, but also able to attract and retain the best talent and the right collaborations to shape a better future in which they can be leading players.
-  A fundamental reshaping of finance. Larry Fink letter to the CEOs (2020)
-  All In: The future of business leadership. David Grayson, Chris Coulter & Mark Lee, Greenleaf Publishing, Routledge (2018)
-  Unlocking the potential of corporate social intrapreneurship. A call to scholars, Nancy Nancy McGaw, Eli Malinsky (2020)
-  Social intrapreneurism and All That Jazz: How business innovators are helping to build a more sustainable world. D. Grayson, Melody Mc Laren, Heiko Spitzeck (2015)
-  Business as unusual. How social intrapreneurs can turn companies into a force for good. Yunus Social Business, Porticus and Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship
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