Sustainability strategy in a time of crisis

Written by
Jon Kauffman

Purpose, Inc., episode 1.17: Chris Coulter, CEO of GlobeScan

In this episode of Purpose, Inc., host Michael Young talked to Chris Coulter, CEO of GlobeScan, a 33-year-old strategy firm that works with global businesses and international NGOs to build trusted leadership, primarily around sustainability. He’s also the coauthor of All In: The Future of Business Leadership.

“It’s been in our worldview that organizations are only able to be successful if they have a social license to operate and if they are able to work with stakeholders, from their employees to suppliers, communities, governments, and investors,” he said.

The pile-on of crises in 2020—health, environment, economy, inequity—has presented us as a society with steep challenges, but also a fascinating opportunity. “If anything, this crisis has shown people that wow, we as a society can change—not under ideal circumstances but very dramatically,” he said. Quick responses are certainly needed, but the “build back better” movement also gives us the opportunity to make larger-scale, dramatic changes.

At the same time, Chris talked about the long lag between intention and action in making massive, necessary changes. It affects businesses as much as it does individuals and government agencies. GlobeScan recently completed a “Survey of Corporate Affairs” in conjunction with Oxford University. “Lots of organizations do develop a purpose and have a bit of a tick-boxing exercise,” Chris said the survey found. “But very few have embedded it and operationalized it throughout the organization, which takes a hell of a lot of work.”

Understanding stakeholder expectations

The work GlobeScan does building strategy, trust, and leadership is led by evidence. “You need to listen deeply, understand the context, how things are shifting, and then to respond based on best practice and where expectations are leading you,” he said. That approach includes the following elements:

  • Providing insight into where stakeholders are viewing you
  • Understanding what is viewed as authentic, ambitious leadership (“How do you create those structures inside organizations that allow you to be recognized as a leader?” he said)
  • Developing a sense of purpose and positioning as an organization

No going back

Not only have environmental, social, and governance (ESG) concerns become mainstream in the past two years, Chris said that he thinks there’s no going back. In the recession of 2008-2009, companies didn’t cut budgets or commitments around sustainability: “We saw the notion of becoming purposeful and more committed to society grew quite significantly on the back of that financial crisis.”

These current crises only show that the value businesses and stakeholders place on sustainability is increasing. “I think the principles of sustainability being long-term, systemic in nature, understanding interconnections, bringing in multi-stakeholder voices, being precautionary, being science-driven, are all real assets for an organization to make the right decisions,” he said.

Listen to the full conversation with Chris Coulter here:

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