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Business Futures: Trend 3: Sustainable Purpose

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While CEOs used to worry mainly about making a profit, the best leaders of sustainable organizations now stress out most of all about their people.

At least once a day, a CEO asks me some version of the following questions:

“How do I grow?”

“How can I move faster?”

“How do I know if I have the right people in the right jobs?”

“What levers do I pull to get the best people?”

Of course, every great leader knows that recruiting and retaining the right people is the foundation of a successful organization, but the global pandemic has reinforced the truth that talent is the currency of sustainable success.

And here we are now amid the Great Resignation—that daunting reality of workers quitting jobs in record numbers. Between April and September, 24 million US workers quit their jobs. Almost half of the world’s workers are considering quitting, according to a Microsoft survey; another survey by Qualtrics International revealed that 4 in 10 Millennial and Gen Z respondents say they would leave their job if asked to come back. At the same time, every business is under pressure to place purpose at the core and behave as a “sustainable” organization, consistently delivering superior financial value and social and environmental impact.

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Welcome to today’s world of leadership. The pressure is real. As noted in Business Futures 2021: Signals of Change report, “Organizations are building sustainability into the fabric of their operations—and making social responsibility sustainable.” At least they’re trying to. Our research found that for 43% of 521 of the world’s largest organizations, their ability to deliver multi-dimensional value does not match their intent.

This is a serious gap. And the gap will widen further if CEOs don’t proactively work to embed purpose into their organizations. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Embrace the leadership lessons that come out of the pandemic. COVID-19 and its brutal aftermath—the tragic losses in lives, jobs, and businesses—have revealed what employees want: more control over the ways they work, where they work, and the kinds of leaders they want to work for. Employees expect more from employers, particularly as they anticipate a post-pandemic world. Young people are particularly eager to be part of the world’s healing. They favor companies and jobs that facilitate that. Listen to the people you’re recruiting, employing and developing. Women judge employers by what they do for them in terms of equity and benefits, including digital productivity tools that equip them to manage their work and their families. Design your culture and your talent strategies to lead and develop people better. Adapt.

2. Rethink what a successful CEO does. Our research shows that the most effective CEOs today cultivate three key traits: empathy, trustworthiness and transparency. Quite a change from the classic MBA model! Modern CEOs show their humanity and emphasize employee trust as much as shareholder value. One example is Land ‘O Lakes CEO Beth Ford. An openly gay executive who took the helm in 2018, Beth has used her CEO platform to work diligently to close the digital divide and to provide farmers custom technology tools—data analytics, artificial intelligence, e-commerce—to build their businesses. How is she doing this? By meeting with farmers on their turf, in their barns and fields, and creating programs such as the American Connection Corps, which recruits college grads to return to rural areas, often where they grew up, and build out the digital infrastructure. Beth, who grew up in Iowa farm country, went back to her roots to act as an effective, authentic and modern CEO.

3. Build sustainability management practices into your organization. Our recent research report, Shaping the Sustainable Organization (a collaboration with the World Economic Forum) shows that companies with the most deeply embedded “Sustainability DNA”—management practices, systems, and processes that facilitate equitable impact, societal value and corporate behavior that earns the trust of all stakeholders—outperform peers by 21% on profitability (as well as in terms of positive environmental and societal outcomes). Great leaders create cultures of sustainability to meet the demands of employees (83% want the flexibility to be productive anywhere), consumers (74% believe that ethical corporate practices and values are an important reason to choose a brand) and investors (81% of sustainable indices outperformed their peer benchmarks in 2020).

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Sustainable purpose is the future of work. And the modern CEO is a human-centered, responsible, and mindful global leader who delivers long-term value to shareholders while developing the best talent and making the world better.

See more Enterprise Strategy insights.

Read our other Business Futures blog posts:

Christie Smith

Lead – Talent & Organization/Human Potential

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