The Power of a Strong Unexpected ESG Ally
This submission is about how the corporate sector can benefit from partnerships with unexpected ESG allies
Setting up the right team around you is an obviously strong foundation for any organization. Finding the right people with aligned goals and skills is why human resources are such valuable departments in a company and retaining the right people is the key to sustained growth. But truly powerful scalability comes from forging alliances and partnerships with unexpected allies, and that kind of leadership comes from the top.
Unilever provides one of the best examples of an ESG connection and partnership creating a resilient ecosystem around a company. One of the largest consumer goods companies in the world, it found allies in radical climate organization GreenPeace and labor union IUF, a federation of unions representing ten million workers in the agricultural and hospitality industries.
While making 19% return on investment consistently. Unilever still made commitments to the United Nations and intergovernmental groups. It made commitments to responsible business practices a priority along with shareholders, not simple shareholder primacy. It provided allyship to IUF and Greenpeace, and when Unilever found itself looking down the barrel of a takeover from Kraft Heinz, a company with a radically different business model, in 2017, John Sauven, the head of Greenpeace UK, rallied against the bid on a company he had grown to trust as a good faith actor. Ron Oswald, the general secretary of the IUF, defended maintaining Unilever's autonomy, and Unilever survived the bid.
These kinds of alliances go beyond piecemeal corporate social responsibility; they involve partnerships that are open to feedback that goes both ways. Finding a true ally means:
Being honest about the areas of your business that vulnerable
It can feel like your job as a leader is to project consistent and unwavering confidence in your company but being prescient about where there are holes in your practice can be as valuable to your resilience than blind optimism. Recently, my company systemCHANGR took a hard look at our website accessibility, and found we were woefully failing to meet the minimum standards for a site that was accessible and even safe for people with visual and auditory exceptionalities. So we reached out and asked for an audit from a civil society organization that supports accessible internet for all. It is the exact kind of organization that would have publicly taken us to task for failing to meet our own principles of sustainable corporate governance. The partnership with them has been nothing but a boon for us, we have new members in our expert space and the learning has raised our standard for user experience design. We expect our future digital spaces will be even more sophisticated.
Be prepared to give
Many special interest organizations are happy to support efforts to improve how the corporate sector treats workers, the environment and the larger community but these are largely cash strapped and under-funded teams. Be prepared to offer support in-kind by sponsoring their events, their publications and by sharing management best practices. Share their wins and their announcements in your network and create ways for your team to contribute on company time to support their growth.
Make a commitment mean something
Make a commitment to see a partner succeed alongside your own success. Symbiotic partnerships work best for both parties when both parties are prepared to put in time and patience. If you are making a commitment on International Women's Day, be prepared to give to that issue and to organizations advancing women's equality and equity the other 364 days of the year. Little says more about a company's integrity than being able to demonstrate that you are still an ally even when no one is looking.
There may come a time when your company is looking down the barrel of a catastrophic day in the press, in the boardroom, or in the market. On those days having partners who can speak to your company's integrity, generosity, or professionalism can mean the difference between a chance to get back up and back to work or being left behind: Resilient companies exist in ecosystems, not vacuums.
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