Real Leaders

Is your Business Future Fit?

Learn how to think more strategically about sustainability as a business driver.

By Real Leaders

GlobeScan is a global insights and advisory consultancy working at the intersection of brand purpose, sustainability, and trust. In this interview with CEO and author Chris Coulter, who co-hosts a podcast about sustainability leadership and business, he explains how companies can think more strategically about sustainability as a business driver.

Real Leaders: Where is society today when it comes to sustainability?

Chris Coulter: We are 40 to 50 years into the conversation of limits, growth, where things are at, and how all of these things are connected. Now, the conversation is more about how we transition and transform into a place that’s going to be more prosperous, more stable, more secure, and more thriving. 

We’ve hit this critical mass threshold at a stakeholder level. Businesspeople, civil society, governments, the financial community, and the scientific community all crossed over a hump a decade ago where we have a collective understanding of where to go. While we have sophistication on the stakeholder side, every day there’s something new in understanding where it goes, how to regulate it, how to invest around it, and how to drive supplier perspectives. Now the debate is how, when, how fast, and where, and we can see the back-and-forth pendulum shifting. 

On the consumer side, we have not engaged the average person on the street in this conversation very effectively. In some parts of the world, it’s part of the culture war between those who don’t want to change and those who do. So on the stakeholder side, we’ve moved miles and we’re at a much more sophisticated place. On moving society, consumers, and citizens, we’re pretty glacial with very little progress overall.

RL: Has the fundamental core driver of business shifted, as opposed to just maximizing share profit?

Coulter: I don’t think it’s transformative, but it has shifted. There have been generational shifts in chief executives, at senior C-suite levels, and even at the board levels that multi-stakeholder approaches to business are sensible, smart, and a long-term success pathway. However, the execution of that has been limited. 

As for fully embracing what a multi-stakeholder approach to business looks like, companies know how to engage investors and listen to investors, and the ESG conversation has been quite catalytic in how companies have responded from at least a disclosure and compliance perspective. As for governments, there are government affairs teams that have had a fracture between traditional lobbying and then policy advocacy that could be oriented toward sustainability — and that’s beginning to move as well. 

But other stakeholders beyond that constellation — communities of impact, civil society, those more peripheral stakeholder audiences — most companies haven’t approached that with a true multi-stakeholder mindset. The ones that do see what’s coming around the corner and how to prepare become future fit for this new reality. And those that don’t can be very successful for a long time until they can’t. There’s an attitudinal orientation and shift and lots of data that’s coming behind it, but the full execution and embracing at some sort of scale has not happened yet. And that’s an interesting place to support business more fully.

RL: What resonates with the multinational companies that GlobeScan works with? How do you convince them that making a difference is good for business?

Coulter: The business case for long-term success equals sustainability, and I can’t think there’s any data, model, or example where that isn’t the case. In the short term, you can make a crazy amount of money, burn bridges, and destroy things, and you can be successful — but in the long term, it’s almost impossible. There’s a great quote by a former CMO at Unilever, Keith Weed, who said he’d love to see the business case for unsustainable business. 

So broadly, the way we meet our clients and engage, we have a shared mind that in the long term, this is what we’re trying to play for and prepare for. Once you begin to plan strategically by looking 10 or 20 years out and ask, “How will consumer sentiments or expectations or sensibility be changing in the future? Who is this younger generation versus the older? What are their preferences? What are their trends?” you can see that it’s being more inclusive, equitable, and sustainable, so that’s the future marketplace.

The problem is that people are so naturally preoccupied with short-term pressures and responses that we can’t get over the hump. Those companies that have been able to create a planning process, an engagement process to have their eye on the long-term, it equals strong sustainability commitment and performance, inevitably.

RL: How should leaders handle resistance to change among different generations?

Coulter: With any sort of generational tension there are new ideas, and the older guard are like, “That’s not how we do business. Let’s go easy. Slow down a little bit.” That’s OK. What’s remarkable is the Gen Z cohort, a portion of them — not all of them because there’s diversity in all cohorts — are remarkably smart, sophisticated, and super passionate about some of these issues that create this generational tension, especially around inclusion. 

As for what’s changing, there are all kinds of conversations. Advertising and marketing have gotten a little more challenging with greenwashing that’s in the greenhushing pendulum. The real shift is that people are feeling that the world is changing for the worse when it comes to climate change. We do lots of consumer public opinion surveys, and in our latest global study, 40% of the world says that they now feel they’ve been very greatly personally impacted by climate change. That’s different than a decade ago when it was less than half of that. 

The biggest obstacle now to sustainability orientation is future discounting. As a species, we’ve evolved to be quite short-term focused. Future discounting is a phenomenon where, if we look too far ahead, we discount the planning toward that. So if I’m a farmer 40,000 years ago trying to eke out a living, I’m not going to be thinking about the next 10 years; I’m thinking about tomorrow or next week. And that has served us well as a species. The challenge with climate and most environmental issues is that if we don’t straighten things out, things are going to get worse, and the worse in the future is a future-discounting problem. 

Now there is an immediacy taking over what people are actually feeling and sensing, which is that things are changing — and not in a good way. This is our moment to try and transform it. The U.S. has the biggest gap anywhere in the world between younger people and older people feeling that climate is having a negative impact. 

As leaders, you have to feel people’s pain, be part of the solution, and show responsibility. Half of us are getting away with, “It’s all inflated. It’s exaggerated. Let’s go back to traditional approaches.” That’s a natural reaction when change is imminent, but we’re going to work through it, and eventually, this is not going to be so politicized. It’ll be a standard status-quo approach to business — but we’re not there yet.


Becoming Employee Owned

Looking out for its own sustainability, GlobeScan became an employee ownership trust.

Here, Coulter talks about the decision-making process:

“We’re 36 years old as an organization, but we were at that juncture where we asked ourselves, ‘Do we go to a bigger agency and be sold, do we find a management buyout, or do we do something more innovative?’ It wasn’t an easy thing to do because of the legal and tax implications, and we’re a small organization — just 60 people spread across nine cities in the world — but we’ve grown substantively over the last couple of years. 

“So we chose this idea of an employee trust, which is not an employee-owned framework. It is a separate trust very much like the John Lewis Partnership in the UK where no one really owns it — the trust owns it. As employees, we’re the beneficiaries, and we get profit-sharing because of that. But once we leave, the trust continues and part of this was to maintain our independence, to be an objective voice, and to ride through what’s going to be a very disruptive, exciting, but transformative and challenging multiple decades going forward. 

“We’re trying collectively to think of not only what we’re doing in our work now with our clients, but what about future GlobeScanners? We’re trying to have a very long-term approach.”

Listen to our full conversation with Globescan’s Chris Coulter on The Real Leaders Podcast, Episode 408.

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