Taking the lead: How leaders can help address global sustainability and human rights challenges

In this guest post, professor Matthew Gitsham, who leads on sustainability at Hult International Business School, sets out the role that leaders should take when helping their organisations hone their green strategies.

The Covid pandemic has been a massive global challenge that has required management action from leaders across all organisations.

But many other global challenges are forcing their way onto the management agenda too: the climate emergency, biodiversity collapse, human rights challenges like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, the genocide in Xinjiang in Western China, and the war in Ukraine.

We tend to think these kinds of challenges are for governments to deal with, and they are, but not alone. Increasingly citizens – both as customers and employees – expect businesses to be playing a leadership role on tackling global challenges too.

And more and more businesses are. At the height of the pandemic, consumer electronics giant Apple announced its intention to be entirely carbon neutral by 2030 – including emissions from across its supply chain and product lifecycle, with consequent implications for all companies seeking to be suppliers to Apple.

Multinational consumer goods company Unilever has goals for its supply chain to be deforestation free, and for its products to help a billion people improve their health and wellbeing. More and more businesses are engaging in human rights due diligence across their value chains too.

As public expectations grow, and more and more organisations get engaged, all this has implications for leaders at all levels across organisations. Through our research, we’ve identified three areas where they need to be thinking and acting differently.

Think differently about leadership

First they need to start thinking differently about what counts as their day job. Taking action on climate, pollution, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, human rights issues in your supply chain – all this is now a core part of their job, and as important as anything else.

Taking action in these areas is not a distraction from their core work, or something that just adds cost. It is core to creating and protecting value for the organisation.

This means as a leader they cannot afford to be uninformed – they need to learn about these global challenges, what they mean for the work they are involved in, and how and where they should be intervening.

For IT professionals, a shift this implies is that their role is not just to deploy tech to help their organisation maximise return on investment to shareholders, but to deploy tech to help the organisation create value for multiple stakeholders and maximise its contribution to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

This implies a host of areas to become more knowledgeable about, including for example: the role of IT in the transition to net zero – both through increasing energy efficiency, and how tech can substitute for high carbon activities elsewhere; e-waste and the circular economy; human rights risks both in the tech supply chain and in how tech is used by customers; and the diversity, equity and inclusion implications of tech.

Leading change in the organisation around you

Second is the role leaders play in leading change in the organisation around them through the language they use and the example set. How they influence people through articulating the purpose of the work everyone is involved in, the kinds of goals set, what they hold people accountable for. What targets they set for people around carbon, diversity, human rights?

What do leaders stick their necks out and speak up about rather than turning a blind eye to? What are leaders seen to ask questions about? Who and what do they champion through the stories they tell? What are they seen to prioritise through what they are seen spending their own time doing?

How do they enable leadership to emerge through framing questions and challenges, rather than telling people what to prioritise?

All these leadership actions are important steps that can encourage others in the organisation to lead on global challenges.

For IT professionals, key areas of concern within the business are likely to include: minimising energy use (this will involve thinking about servers and datacentres, migrating to the cloud, and using state of the art tech); minimising e-waste by maximising reuse; the role of IT in helping ‘dematerialise’ products, and generally deploying IT to help achieve sustainability goals. Reducing energy use in facilities management, internal processes and operations, and gathering accurate sustainability data to drive action and report to stakeholders are also other important areas to address.

So key leadership roles IT professionals should consider playing include: advocating for a corporate sustainability strategy if one doesn’t already exist; working closely with both the CSO and CEO to establish priorities for IT, and using this to develop a sustainable IT strategy with goals and targets; working closely with end users of IT solutions within the business to co-develop sustainability solutions, and generally advocating and inquiring with the team and others across the organisation to promote a culture of sustainability.

Leading change in the wider ecosystem around the organisation

But your leadership role isn’t just within the organisation. Increasingly, you have a leadership role in the wider ecosystem around your organisation too.

Your leadership role extends to leading behaviour change amongst customers, persuading suppliers to do things differently, and other partner organisations involved in the same sphere or ‘ecosystem’ as your own. You quite possibly even have a leadership role to persuade policymakers to change regulatory frameworks.

To be able to play these aspects of your leadership role well, you need to be able to engage well with multiple different stakeholder groups, be able to contribute to public and political debate with an informed point of view, and to engage in multi-stakeholder collaborations and partnerships with unconventional partners.

For IT professionals, this might mean engaging with suppliers – for example requiring sustainability and human rights information as part of procurement decision-making, or requiring regular quarterly reporting of sustainability data, and maybe collaborating with them to create the systems to facilitate this, and maybe collaborating with competitors to standardise such requirements and systems. It might also mean engaging with customers, advocating for solutions that could help them meet sustainability goals, even if they aren’t thinking about this yet, and also investigating and address any human rights risks in relation to how customers might use tech in the products your organisation is selling them.

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