Matthew Gitsham, Director of the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability, Hult International Business School, who has undertaken research in recent years on behalf of the United Nations into the implications of sustainability for global leadership, was privileged to be an observer in New York as the UN made what could be described as life-changing agreements:
It may have passed most of us by at the end of September as the news agenda was dominated by talks around Syria, the Volkswagen saga and the Rugby World Cup.
Yet, at that time, an agreement was being made behind this media wall which will affect all of us in the years ahead, from the way leaders lead, how companies are run and the effect on each and every household.
After two years of sometimes fraught negotiations, and building on the biggest consultation exercise in history, in September 2015, the 193 member states of the United Nations agreed a set of new ‘Global Goals’.
The idea is that these goals will provide a framework to encourage increased coordination between national governments, international institutions, private companies, NGOs and voluntary organisations around the world.
There are 17 goals, each with a number of specific quantified targets to be achieved by 2030, and the overall objective is about improving quality of life and dignity for all, within the constraints of planetary boundaries.
Accordingly, there are goals on poverty and hunger, health, education, empowerment of women and girls, infrastructure and access to energy, decent work and tackling inequality, as well as a variety of goals about living within planetary boundaries: action on climate, ecosystems and fresh water.
Although ultimately agreed by national governments, this new framework will have significant implications for businesses and many other kinds of organisation.
Many companies have played an active role in helping shape the new goals – businesses representing 10% of global GDP were involved in the consultation process one way or another.
These companies will welcome the new goals – they called for them because they argued that many of the world’s biggest problems cannot be achieved without them, and they hope they will create the right policy framework for business to make a bigger contribution.
For other businesses that have not engaged with the new Global Goals yet, they should.
For one thing, the goals are expected to shape regulation by national governments – certain unhelpful activities are likely to face stronger regulatory action, causing certain markets to shrink.
But on the upside, many other markets are expected to grow. The first 15 of the 17 goals have been described by the UN as ‘the 15 biggest market opportunities of the next 15 years’.
A blend of public and private finance is expected to unleash significant investment and growth opportunities. Research suggests that the goals will require $4.5trillion a year to achieve, and it is anticipated that initial investment by public bodies will create attractive conditions that will unlock additional private sector investment.
These developments have important implications for business leaders, and therefore for leadership development. Research by the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability at Hult International Business School has been exploring how.
Our research suggests that those businesses that are best placed to capitalise on these new opportunities and navigate the risks are those where the senior leaders have adopted a ‘shared value’ mindset – one that seeks to create value out of developing products, services and business models that solve problems and meet needs in society, rather than narrowly pursuing profit at the expense of others. This means a marriage of a passion for social good and commercial acumen, addressing global challenges through commercial solutions, rather than always seeing a trade-off between the two.
What shapes this kind of thinking among business leaders? Our research suggests that there is a distinct pattern of a range of specific kinds of influences: life experiences that fostered empathy and sympathy with those suffering, including time spent in different kinds of communities; direct challenge from some kind of significant or authoritative individual; cultural influences relating to family, community, faith or national culture, or the values of previous organisations worked for; and education.
How do organisations end up with senior leaders with this kind of outlook? These findings point to two important implications. One: organisations should pay more attention to these kinds of factors when recruiting and promoting. Two: many of these kinds of experiences can and should be directly integrated into leadership development activities – most effectively through experiential learning.
The Global Goals for Sustainable Development