How can business leaders address today's most urgent environmental and social challenges?

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Posted 2022-12-13

UBC Sauder faculty explored the opportunities that lie ahead, at the UNICON Executive Education Conference

“ESG brings a lot of tension and uncertainty, but this is where real opportunity lies.”
- Darren Dahl, Dean, UBC Sauder

“Why are environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues such important contemporary concerns?” asked UBC Sauder Dean, Darren Dahl, host of the 2022 UNICON conference in Vancouver, B.C.  

Dahl welcomed a global consortium of executive education providers who gathered from 63 leading business schools for the multi-day conference. Attendees heard evidence-based strategies from UBC Sauder faculty to facilitate responsible business, and collectively explored how to reconcile its economic, social, political and environmental impacts.   

"ESG brings a lot of tension and uncertainty, but this is where real opportunity lies,” said Dahl in his opening address. “Our ability as faculty is to help organizations find and lead with their values.”

“Values connect leaders to employees, consumers and shareholders."
- Daniel Skarlicki, Academic Director & Professor, UBC Sauder 

Daniel Skarlicki, Academic Director of UBC Sauder’s Montalbano Centre for Responsible Leadership, and Professor of Organizational Behaviour, highlighted studies showing the average tenure of a CEO shrinking to five years with many struggling to survive for 18 months. In his panel session on Values-Based Leadership, Skarlicki’s key takeaway was as the world grows increasingly complex and uncertain, leaders can only succeed and be strongest when they are grounded in their values. 

Without purpose-led values, leaders have been ill prepared and ill-equipped to handle recent crises like the COVID pandemic, social unrest and climate disaster, said Skarlicki. “Emotionally, they have felt like a fraud.” 

“You can’t lead out there, until you understand what’s going on internally,” he continued. “Values connect leaders to employees, consumers and shareholders. Being fundamental to our sense of self-definition, they motivate us, help regulate our behaviour and they become the rudder to successfully navigate these difficult times.”

Skarlicki demonstrated how executive education programs at UBC Sauder help leaders articulate their values through immersive workshopping. In these guided sessions, executives use tools like storytelling, journaling and reflection to explore personal legacy and contribution before shifting the focus from “me” to “we” and learning to build team values and subsequent psychological safety for employees. 

Executives are coached by UBC Sauder faculty in how to share company purpose and values with wider stakeholder groups. They’re then better situated to collectively and authentically tackle issues like reducing their carbon footprint, supply chain compliance, or diversity and inclusion. 

“Talking about things that you want to encourage makes other people more likely to follow suit.”
- Katherine White, Senior Associate Dean, UBC Sauder 

In her session Business as a Force for Good, Senior Associate Dean at UBC Sauder, Katherine White shared how consumer behaviour can be redirected by organization leaders towards positive environmental and social change. White, named by AMA as among the top five marketing researchers worldwide – has in the course of her own research and extensive literary review - drawn on expertise in psychology, marketing, behavioural science, and economics to develop the SHIFT Framework. Representing five key drivers for behaviour change, including social influence, habit formation, individual self, feelings and cognition, and tangibility, SHIFT is an invaluable tool for business leaders to orient stakeholders towards ESG solutions.  

“Business leaders must be interdisciplinary and keep sight of the big picture.”
- Justin Bull, Lecturer & Leader, UBC Sauder

The importance of reimagining a schema for the purpose of business, where profits are made in line with planetary and social constraints, was reinforced by Justin Bull, Lecturer, and Leader of the UBC Sauder Sustainability and Ethics Group. “Business is in the midst of a crisis,” he said. “We’re being forced to confront gross inequalities, social injustice, and the possibility that we may leave our grandchildren with an uninhabitable Earth."

Bull’s advice was to encourage leaders to “think like a fox”, referencing Archilochus’ ancient Greek fable where unlike scientists who focus deeply on a core topic, business leaders must be interdisciplinary and keep sight of the big picture to make informed and responsible decisions. “In scientific literature, the world rewards specialists. But ESG doesn’t care about the arbitrary delineations of academia,” he concluded.

“Board directors are ultimate stewards of corporations, which can be the most influential institutions of our time.”
- Christie Stephenson, Director, UBC Sauder

Christie Stephenson, Executive Director of the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics at UBC Sauder led a panel session on Responsible Governance, examining role of an organization’s board of directors and how it should translate ESG risks to opportunities. 

“Board directors are ultimate stewards of corporations, which can be the most influential institutions of our time,” said Stephenson. “They are not only responsible for problems that plague us but also hold the key to the possibility that we can turn the ship around and find solutions.”

With racialized people, and women still representing the minorities among board composition; diversity and inclusion is a critical need, panel members agreed. “Particularly in Canada we are talking about the “I” in ESG,” said Stephenson. “And how fundamentally important Indigenous rights, reconciliation and relationships are for businesses and society.”

“The days of voluntary ESG marketing are over.”
- Carol Liao, Distinguished Scholar & Associate Professor, UBC Sauder

Panelist Carol Liao, Distinguished Scholar at the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics, and Associate Professor of Law at UBC, urged board directors to prioritize ESG. As co-leader of the Canada Climate Law Initiative, she cautioned that regulators are endorsing the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) and the International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) are forming global benchmarks and will be increasingly holding companies to ESG compliance.  

“The days of voluntary ESG marketing are over,” said Liao. “Organizations face growing reputational and litigation risks if they’re not reporting accurately. They need to ensure they’re not greenwashing, not social washing or red washing.”

Overall, the message UNICON members took away from this year’s conference was that business leaders must be equipped to embrace ESG challenges through clear values and purpose. Top down, organizations must reflect the demographics and culture in which they operate and be energized by the opportunity to create positive impact.

These learnings shared by UBC Sauder faculty and guest speakers, offered executive education providers with inspiration and direction on how to guide leaders towards responsible governance - and stay relevant in a rapidly changing world.