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Roundtable synopsis of the The Future of Sustainable Business Leadership

Our first (virtual) roundtable's theme was on The Future of Sustainable Business Leadership. We decided on this more generic headline to complement our recently published scenario report: Sustainable Business Leadership in 2030. The report showcases four different scenarios of factors and actors shaping the future of sustainable business.

We invited three speakers: Helle Bank Jorgensen, CEO of Competent Boards and Senior Advisor to The Sustainability Board Report (TSBR), Meredith Sumpter, CEO of The Council for Inclusive Capitalism and Mike Rosenberg, Professor of the Practice of Management at IESE.

The event started with the speakers giving insights to their own work, followed by their assessment of factors that might shape sustainable business leadership in the future.

Examples ranged from entire systems changing to more inclusive forms of capitalism, over the necessity for more thorough governance and the need to plan for the future well in advance, and not deal with sustainability issues as they arise. The first half of the meeting also included brief case studies of specific challenges and how leaders are ought to tackle those. One speaker gave an example of a corporate board of directors that would not see the financial benefits of changing an entire car fleet to electric vehicles, although an executive made a compelling case of positive long-term effects.

All speakers gave a general sentiment that it is important for leaders to have sufficient ESG competence.

The second half was an interactive dialogue where all participants had the opportunity to post comments or questions. One participant was interested whether the entire board of directors need to have explicit ESG competence, or if certain specialised directors would be sufficient to drive a material sustainability strategy/agenda. One speaker answered that it is time to start looking at ESG as being critical to future proof at least parts of the board. That is, as a minimum on the sustainability committees. The speaker cited the findings of The Sustainability Board Report 2020 that found that only 17% of directors who serve on sustainability committees have ESG credentials/competence. "Once this number is improved one can look at cascading this knowledge to other board members outside of a dedicated committee". It was also outlined that the board as a whole should have a general understanding of ESG issues. "Capital markets will respond negatively to boards that insufficiently deal with material sustainability issues, as this is increasingly seen as a fiduciary matter."

Another participant asked about the dynamics of asset managers pressuring companies through ESG activism and generally scrutinise boards more. One speaker responded that this is very much a trend and the money manager community has increased voting for shareholder proposals that concern ESG and/or sustainability issues and risks. Another speaker was certain that this is a growing concern for boards as they see asset managers being more involved.

Overall, the meeting was filled with a lively discussion, especially around the state of ESG in businesses and their ecosystems- One participant commented on the changing role of stock exchanges and index providers driving a stricter ESG narrative with their clients, which will be interesting to follow. There was a sentiment of all actors around the corporate environment needing to care about sustainability more than ever, and with immediate effect.

As a last point, one of the speakers suggested that the conversation must be driven from the top and it needs individual leaders championing for change, but eventually sustainability advocacy should spread throughout the entire company. A final comment was by another speaker to one of the participants, who wondered how to best implement an ESG strategy within their business. It was suggested to gather the senior leadership team and discuss how all leaders can drive a sustainable strategy forward and align behind a common purpose.


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