Five Leadership Principles to Make Business the New Activist for Systemic Change

Marianne Haahr, Project Director, Sustainia We live in a leadership-constrained world; it is one of the scarcest resources of our times. Today, leaders need to create systemic change if we are to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030, but few are doing so. A leader’s ability to create the needed action begins with a radical shift in mindset, and Sustainia’s annual survey of 5,500 global leaders confirms that the time is now.

For three consecutive years, Sustainia has released the Global Opportunity Report in collaboration with the UN Global Compact and DNV GL.In total, 17,500 business leaders have been consulted and it has become clear that these leaders see themselves as the new activist alongside civil society.

However, the question now is how do we translate their perceptions into actions? Adopting five new principles of leadership could be the first step in the right direction:

1.Imagination over Management

The top opportunity across the past three years makes it clear that leaders are the greatest believers in mature market opportunities.
In 2015, water-efficient agriculture topped the list; in 2016, it was smart farming and now in 2017, it is smart water tech - three market opportunities with proven technologies where regulation is already shaping the opportunity space and with a generalized consumer demand. These are not early adopter markets. All three are safe bets no-brainer markets, perhaps – and further down the opportunity list are markets that demand a greater capacity for imagination from leaders.

One example is the market for housing in slums. Leaders rate it low, despite the fact that informal settlements are home to 12 percent of the global population. Living in slums is the fastest-growing form of lifestyle, but most managers are unable to imagine a lucrative market here.

Rather than observing consumers from the outside, try to be them for a moment to experience their challenges up-close. Management has become an exercise in quantification, but it needs new skills, and one of these is imagination – it is the key to staying ahead by innovating your market.

2. Cut Career, in with Impact Paths

It is clear from the past three Global Opportunity Reports that new markets
emerge at the edges of existing sectors and established markets, for instance, the new markets between food and pharma or between design and ocean resources, as revealed in the report. However, to see this you need to be capable of changing perspective in order to innovate your market.

A pre determined linear career path does not incentivize thinking from multiple perspectives, but rather it rewards keeping eyes on the prize. Leaders will need people capable of looking to the edges of existing markets, but this requires cutting career paths as the only talent development tool. Moving away from talent development based solely on linear career paths is a way to enable change in mindset.

A pre-determined linear career path does not incentivize thinking from multiple perspectives, but rather rewards keeping eyes on the prize

3. Trust in Tech

The Global Opportunity Report found that new markets also emerge where a sustainability risk meets technology. This ranges from markets for mobile health products that enable people at the base of the pyramid to access health care,to developing financial products based on blockchain technology for banking the unbanked.

We asked leaders for their insight of where we currently have the capacity (political, technological and economic) to pursue the 15 new markets identified in the Report.The message is clear: leaders put a greater trust in technology than in both the economy and politics when it comes to developing markets that address global risks.

Leaders need to re-think who to put on the payroll. Is it a public affairs manager or a tech affairs manager that will help shape new market opportunities?

4. Make Youth Your Mentor

Younger leaders see a greater business case in markets which create systemic change. Across all three years, managers below the age of 30 rate all the market opportunities for systemic change higher than those aged 30 or over. To put it simply, young managers see a greater business case for saving the planet and people, and senior managers tend to have a harder time seeing the business case, pointing to it being a generational issue.

Hence, there is a marked difference in how young and senior managers perceive the market. As a leader, make the most of this difference by making youth your mentor as a senior manager. Provide the structures for millennial junior staff to mentor senior managers. This offers a different perspective to understanding the market as well, as it provides a proxy for millennial consumers in terms of what they value.

5. Amplify with Activism

One of the questions we have asked across the three years is who managers perceive to be active advocates for each market opportunity for systemic change. Civil society is regarded by the majority of respondents to be the most active advocate for change, but what is also clear is that civil society is not alone. Business is seen as next in line when it comes to actively advocating for systemic change.

To unlock this potential, leaders should use an activist’s toolbox to amplify efforts. Utilizing tools of activism is about mobilizing support to bring about that change – make it a practice as well as a principle in your business to treat customers as if you were building a movement. It means treating them as organizations treat their members — involving them as part of a collective, constantly creating value for all.