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Why Thought Leadership Needs to Include Societal Change

Societal change came under the spotlight in our first session at the Thought Leadership for Tomorrow event. 

Global Managing Director of Accenture Research, Francis Hintermann, acknowledged that his journey from New York to the event in London had lumbered him with the fact that he had generated two tons of carbon.

From this exercise in ‘mea culpa’, Francis introduced us to the uncomfortable fact that we have just 318 working days until 2025, – when greenhouse gas emissions need to hit their global peak if we’re to stand a chance of hitting Paris Agreement targets. This statistic emerged last year from a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Can we hit ambitions to mitigate climate change?

The need to reduce our carbon footprint emissions is widely understood, and Francis centered his talk on Sustainable Development Goals. He stated that while many businesses and their employees believe in them, the confidence in hitting these targets is seriously waning. The data presented pointed to a pessimistic future for corporate environmental targets, with the findings showing the gap between reality and aspiration is widening. Among the key insights:

  • Net zero commitments are growing all the time
  • Only 7% of companies are on track to hit net zero
  • Even in an accelerated scenario, 40% would still miss targets.

To paraphrase Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds, is this our first inkling of the gulf between sustainability dreams and their actual powers? Are symptoms of greenwashing at play here?

Delivering the action instead of the promises

Francis made the superb point that companies need to set more than headline targets.

“What we can see which is interesting, is that when a company adopts the decarbonization targets,” explained Francis, “not only it works, but on top of that we can see that it has positive side effects, in the sense that when companies have carbon-footprint and carbon focused measures, we can see that they all as well take measures related to be over sustainable goals as I mentioned earlier.”

 Our future needs to take into account full value chain decarbonization. It was made clear this would be a complex, multi-pronged effort, with Francis making the plea that companies should be clean and honest about their environmental missions, and to hear this directly from  a global leader, who at the beginning of his talk was very frank about his own carbon contribution, got the audience to have a serious think. Transitioning towards  solutions, Francis introduced his life-centric entryways to sustainability, with  these six values::

  • Caring
  • Self-fulfilment
  • Belonging
  • Resourcefulness
  • Empowerment
  • Openness

Continuing to explore the ‘S’ of Environmental, Societal and Governance (ESG), our next panelist was the Global Editorial Director and Deputy Publisher of McKinsey & Company, Lucia Rahilly. The company has almost seventy years of environmental and social positivity, backed by published insights.

Kicking off her talk, Lucia underlined that insights need to be useful to their audience. This is a highly valid point, as when you deep dive into producing thought leadership and submerge yourself into data, there is the impetus to deliver something from it in a short space of time. Of course, you should consider not just the industry of the audience you are targeting, but their roles. A Chief Information Officer in technology may view your next revelation as valuable, but would it be valued by a Managing Director of a recruitment firm?

“Published insights are a pivotal way that we, as a firm, bring our ESG agenda to life,” explained Lucia. “You can see them here in our ESG report. Thought leadership is at the fulcrum of our research and client impact. It’s the way we not only build awareness, but in fact we do spur leaders to practical action and change.”

The humbling statistic on financial hardship

World poverty was highlighted by Lucia with a jaw-dropping statistic from McKinsey’s recent report – 61% of the world lives below the empowerment line. This shows how thought leadership should raise the bar, to look at initiatives to take people from poverty to economic empowerment.

Then we hit upon a positive revelation from the report; the UK is now halfway to meeting its net zero emissions target by 2050. This goal is not just the country’s international pledge to the Paris Agreement, it’s legally binding under its own Climate Change Act.

According to Lucia, market-led opportunities have played an enormous part in reaching this achievement and the ambition of raising minimum living standards is connected to the destination of net zero carbon emissions.

Continuing to spotlight disparities, Lucia touched upon McKinsey’s most recent Women In The Workplace report, which has now reached its ninth year. She remarked that it sadly highlights how further change is needed for gender equality, with some of the new report’s findings:

  • Women of color remain underrepresented at senior levels in the corporate world
  • Roughly one in four C-suite leaders are female
  • For every 100 men promoted from entry-level to manager, 87 women were promoted.

Finally, attention was turned to the McKinsey Health Institute. This non-profit entity aims to improve healthcare equity. Lucia said the biggest challenge in helping disabled people is that there is an enormous lack of data on their conditions.

The third and final global speaker on this panel was Elisabeth Bolshaw, Global Content Strategist at EY. Her session began by invoking a figurehead who is very much the antithesis of all positive societal change.

She quoted Logan Roy, from the HBO series Succession. These words were full of contempt for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, to put it mildly, but thankfully, Logan is a fictional character and Elisabeth made the point that you need to think of this uncaring power-hungry media mogul as an anti-role model when crafting  your own goals for societal change.

ESG enables business growth

“When we talk about societal issues I think it’s really important to start at home,” said Elisabeth. “Francis mentioned the importance of starting from an individual perspective, I’m talking really about providing a corporate platform from which to speak. You can’t establish a credible place to persuade others unless you recognize that we’re all on a hard journey together. No single organization has cracked this yet.”

Elisabeth stated it’s vital that the S in the acronym should cover more than DEI. While it’s true that climate change typically comes  top of most board concerns for investment targets, she implored the audience to note that social change issues are always climbing up.

Briefly touching on sustainability, Elisabeth was keen that we identify and avoid ‘greenwashing’.

As Elisabeth told the audience that it pays to be “a data nerd”, the audience learned that providing hard evidence from data is an essential component to guarantee credibility. This is a rule we’re very keen to embrace.

Another moment of delight – Elisabeth rubbished that old argument against Thought Leadership: “It hurts the bottom line”. She stated that all the evidence that EY has, shows that companies that are more inclusive and are more innovative will be more successful.

To underline that, she mentioned that valuable media coverage has been earned, including being quoted in the UK’s House of Commons, from EY’s highlighting of social issues. Our audience was told to embed such concerns in their wider thought leadership portfolio.

She concluded her session with the imperative that  E, S and G are always interconnected .

Audience feedback

As all three speakers finished their presentations, there was time to cover the questions asked by the audience. One key takeaway came from when the speakers were asked for a key insight about driving change through thought leadership that should be emphasized to aspiring change-makers.

Francis stressed that values needed to be addressed. For Lucia, her advice was to identify ways to reach business leaders who make change happen. Logan Roy was unavailable for comment.

Interested in watching the Aspiring Change-Makers session on-demand? Click here.   

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